It's been nearly 15 years since Heather McNamara’s mother called the then-7-year-old “a little miracle” for surviving a rare surgical procedure that removed six of her organs to extract a cancerous tumor the size of a tennis ball.
Now 22, McNamara, of Islip Terrace, is once again in a fight for her life, but defying doctors’ expectations and determined to resume her work as an EMT and pursue her dream of becoming a paramedic.
She's been hospitalized at South Shore University in Bay Shore since late December with an infection that prevents her from making new blood cells. She was initially on life support. Doctors performed a tracheotomy, a dozen blood transfusions and McNamara remains hospitalized but alert.
On Thursday, McNamara's family and friends gathered at the Islip Terrace Fire Department to donate blood in her honor and raise awareness of New York's critical blood shortage. Her sister, Stephanie McNamara, said they collected 282 pints, surpassing their goal of 200.
'Saving someone's life'
“The great thing about donating blood is it doesn't require you to give any money, rather it requires somebody to sacrifice their time and their body,” said Stephanie McNamara, 25. “It is extremely appreciated by my family. … You're directly saving someone's life.”
Doctors who saved Heather McNamara's life in 2009 did so with a risky surgical procedure that was the first of its kind performed on a child. Because the tumor had wrapped around several of McNamara's vital organs and essential blood vessels, surgeons had to remove her stomach, pancreas, liver, spleen and small and large intestines. Her liver and intestines were later reattached.
She thrived after the surgery, eventually graduating from East Islip High School and volunteering as an EMT with Exchange Ambulance of the Islips.
But she also has battled diabetes since her initial surgery, requiring several follow-up procedures.
In December, a day after Christmas, family members found McNamara unconscious at home, sickened with the flu. They rushed her to the hospital. Doctors there determined she had double-lung pneumonia, had become septic with a blood infection that caused a multisystem organ failure, and had lost the ability to make blood and new blood cells.
Three days later, her family declined another surgery and were told she might not survive the night. Stephanie McNamara moved up her summer wedding plans to have a ceremony in Heather's hospital room so she could be her maid of honor.
“It was probably about midnight, they told us that she was not going to make it through the night. They told us basically we had the next few hours with her,” Stephanie McNamara said. “We got married at her bedside. It was the saddest wedding ever and every nurse was crying. We did it because Heather wouldn’t have wanted it any other way and I wanted to make sure she was part of that.”
Signs of improvement
Afterward, she began showing signs of improvement. She remained on life support, but eventually awoke. Later she developed a second case of pneumonia. Then last week, she suffered cardiac arrest that briefly stopped her heart.
“Her body started to fail again, but she fought like hell and she’s finally starting to get better. That was truly out of everyone's hands, just like her first surgery, there wasn't a good reason she pulled through the night,” her sister said. “She wants to be here. She wants to keep fighting. She has planned such a life for herself, she wants to finish what she started that she fought as a child.”
Now comes the hardest part, Stephanie McNamara said. Her younger sister must relearn to do everything herself, from breathing, to eating and walking.
The family is in the process of moving Heather to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan so she can see the surgeon who performed the first surgery in 2009. She is slowly regaining strength and revels in small victories, such as walking or moving from her hospital bed to a chair.
She appeared this week on a Facebook video from the intensive care unit, while her sister promoted the blood drive, but was unable to speak due to the breathing tube connected to a ventilator.
Friends and family have held candlelight vigils outside the hospital awaiting McNamara’s recovery, said Doreen Fiscina, a family friend and business manager of the New York Blood Center, which she added, is facing a critical blood shortage.
“Heather has done so much and when she needs help … the community comes out and shows how much they care about her,” Fiscina said. “No matter what she’s had to battle, she comes out stronger and smiling and worries about other people before worrying about herself.”
Her family hopes she can come home once she is able to breathe again on her own and in time to receive an award March 2 for performing CPR as an EMT and saving someone's life.
At the Islip Terrace Fire Department Thursday, Scott Crosby, chief of Exchange Ambulance of the Islips, said it was not a question of if but when McNamara resumes her EMT duties and assists her father and sister, who are both Islip Terrace firefighters.
“It’s a waiting game unfortunately, but she’s getting stronger. She is fearless, strong-minded, strong-willed and would help anyone in need before she helps herself,” Crosby said. “I just want her back on the ambulance. When she comes back, it will be gratifying knowing she’s back to where she wants to be. No negativity, she will be back.”