When Heather McNamara arrived Tuesday morning at Connetquot Elementary School in Islip Terrace, the spunky 7-year-old looked like any other third-grader on the first day of school.
She found her best friend, Kylie McConnell, 8, and the two girls strode through the front door as principal Lisa Belz welcomed students to a new school year.
But Tuesday was not an ordinary day for Heather, who attended school for the first time since groundbreaking surgery saved her life seven months ago. Simply returning to the classroom was a major milestone for the little girl, who was diagnosed in 2005 with an abdominal inflammatory myofibroblastic tumor.
"My heart is pounding," her mother, Tina McNamara, said as Heather ate breakfast at their Islip Terrace home. "I want to be there, even if I'm sitting outside the classroom."
In February, doctors at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian in Manhattan removed six of Heather's organs during a 23-hour operation to extract a tennis ball-sized tumor wrapped around her pancreas and major blood vessels.
Surgeons reimplanted her liver, and large and small intestines. Her pancreas, stomach and spleen were too damaged to be reattached. Doctors said Heather was the first child in the world to have the surgery.
Her prognosis is good, said Dr. Steven Lobritto, pediatric medical director for liver and small bowel transplantation at NewYork-Presbyterian. "She's a robust kid," he said. "She's right on target."
Heather now is diabetic and more prone to infections, and without her stomach, she can't digest food normally. For months her constant companion has been a backpack and feeding tubes that electronically pump predigested food through a tube implanted in her body. After gaining 11 pounds since surgery, Heather can leave the backpack home when she's in school.
"Without the backpack, we have to watch her even more closely," her mother said. "It's going to be tough."
But Heather did not want her parents, including her father, Joe, to worry too much. After Tina McNamara said she wanted to spend the day at school, Heather made a gesture with her thumb and playfully threatened to kick her mom out of the classroom.
"I'm in my own time," she said. "In my own world."