Sometimes Ashley Perry gets a strange feeling when she holds a basketball, almost as if there are two people inside of her. Also, she likes spicy foods when she didn’t before.
Perry, a 16-year-old senior at Tucker High School, attributes some of these strange feelings to the new heart she received from a 25-year-old athlete a little more than a year ago.
Perry began seeing a doctor because she had a squeaky cough, and was told she had a “habit” cough that was psychological. She later began gaining weight and experienced pain while walking.
After one particular emergency room visit, Perry was held for observation. It was then, after numerous hospital visits over several years, that she said doctors finally realized there was more going on with her than they had diagnosed.
“By the time they found out what the issue was, my lungs were badly destroyed from my heart. So, there was a moment when they thought I wouldn’t be able to receive a heart at all,” Perry said.
In early June 2010, Perry was diagnosed with cardiomyopothy and told that she would need a new heart.
Courtney Scott, a friend from middle school, was sitting on a hammock in Myrtle Beach when she heard the news and said she “freaked out.” Scott said that for a long time, she and friends Melanie McCall and Isis Hamilton thought Perry was a hypochondriac.
“She kept coming home and telling us that the doctor said that nothing was wrong with her. It got to the point where we just stopped believing her altogether,” Scott said. “I felt really guilty when I found out that she was really sick.”
After realizing there was a health issue, Scott said she and her friends spent most of the summer of 2010 at the hospital by Perry’s side.
Perry, who was initially told that it could take up to a year for her to get a heart transplant, ended up receiving one on June 15, 2010, only two months after being told she needed one.
“The scariest part of it was when I was in the ICU and one of the kids beside me started flat lining,” Perry recalled. “They got her stable but it was just so scary because that could have been me.”
The heart that Perry received cost $300,000 and although most of that was paid by insurance, Perry’s family was struggling with the cost of medication and therapy. In an effort to help, Scott, McCall and Hamilton got together and came up with a solution.
“I had just run a marathon and I was like, ‘Let’s do a fundraiser.’ We just had the plan to do the race and call it ‘A Heart for Ashley,’” Scott said.
The girls then started the iHeart company to promote the race, signed up 35 runners and raised $1,200 to go toward helping pay Perry’s medical bills.
“The hardest thing is to get the word out to the community because unless it happens to you or someone close to you, people aren’t really interested in it,” Hamilton said. “If they don’t hear the cost of the heart, they don’t understand the reality of it.”
This year, the second race will be held on Oct. 15 at the Stone Mountain Visitors Center and the friends are confident that it will be even more of a success than last year. However, they said the biggest challenge is getting some of their peers to attend the race.
“Some of them just don’t care, even some of my friends that I have don’t care. We’ve kind of figured out who our real friends are because of this experience,” Perry said.
Perry said she and her three friends are so close from the time they spent over the past year that they’re almost like the same person.
“We talk alike, it’s ridiculous,” Perry said. “I’m really grateful. During the time that I was in the hospital I really didn’t think I was going to come out of it.”
Next year, all of the friends will be going away to college, but Scott said the trio will most likely try to continue the race and move it to the summertime, when they are all home from school.
Perry said that although things are much more difficult than they were before, she’s grateful to have such good friends and the opportunity to graduate from high school this year.
In 10 to 15 years, Perry will have to get another new heart.
“It’s something you have to think about,” she said. “But, I have really close friends and people to support me.”