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A 12-year-old cheerleader. A recently repaired heart. And a different kind of Valentine’s Day story.

The D.C. girl seemed healthy when she went for a routine physical. Then her pediatrician heard a worrisome sound while checking her heart.

Jaela Vonderpool was getting a routine physical last year when her pediatrician heard a concerning sound while checking her heart. (Alvin Bailey)

Jaela Vonderpool wasn’t just a cheerleader. She was a flyer.

She was the girl other cheerleaders hoisted onto their shoulders and tossed into the air. She was the girl who, in those moments when her body filled with a natural surge of stress, was expected to look graceful and fearless.

If you had watched Jaela perform, you would have seen a poised, petite rocket of a child.

That’s what makes what happened last February still so unbelievable to her mom, Cierra Lynn Taylor.

“She was healthy,” Cierra says on a recent night. “She was a cheerleader. She wasn’t a preemie. And I don’t drink or smoke.”

As she tells it, she took her daughter for a routine physical that was needed for the 12-year-old to participate in cheerleading. Cierra assumed they would be in and out and then onto another task. But when the pediatrician went to listen to Jaela’s heart, she heard a faint sound in addition to her normal heartbeat. “She said it was so faint that you’d have to be skilled to catch it,” Cierra recalls.

The pediatrician was concerned enough that she gave the family a referral to see a cardiologist at Children’s National Hospital.

At the hospital, after tests were done, the mother and daughter learned that Jaela had a congenital heart condition that, if left untreated, could be fatal. They were told Jaela would need open-heart surgery to correct it.

“The thing that tripped me up is there were no symptoms,” Cierra says. “I think that is the scariest part about it.”

Cierra is a popular artist in the nation’s capital. Her bold, bright brushstrokes gained national attention after she started painting bathroom stalls in schools. She had been an art teacher and knew that’s where students went when they were being bullied or feeling down. She covered those stalls with self-esteem-boosting images and affirmations.

That work led her to partner with the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on mental health. They set a goal of painting bathrooms in cities across the world. I first told you about Cierra when the pandemic put that travel on hold and she started turning women’s bodies into canvases. She used body paint to tell their stories and empower them.

One boldly painted body at a time, a Black D.C. artist is helping women and girls tell their stories

That’s what Cierra does. She makes vivid the strengths of people. Her more than 62,000 followers on Instagram have come to expect those colorful, uplifting displays. But on Feb. 18 last year, they learned that Cierra’s own strength was being tested.

“I thought long and hard about sharing this here,” she wrote on that day. “But our TRUTH, stories and testimonies always help and encourage others. Currently by my daughters bedside in ICU. She had a 6 hour open heart surgery and is in recovery.”

Feb 19: “Although it hurts me to my core to see, Jaela is resilient and pushing through. Heart surgery is major and I'm still in disbelief that this is now a part of her story and mine as a mom.”

On the same week that the country will celebrate Valentine’s Day with heart-shaped balloons and cards, Jaela will mark a year since she received major surgery to repair her real heart. Cierra calls it her “survivor-versary.”

The last year has seen mother and daughter change. They went from not giving much thought to heart health to now trying to get people to pay more attention to it. They have been using Cierra’s platform to share their story in the hope it will encourage people to make that appointment, listen to their doctors and take better care of themselves.

“Go get those checkups, even when things are going okay,” Cierra says. It’s not lost on her that her daughter’s surgery occurred during American Heart Month. “I want to find a way to get people more serious about their hearts, especially this month. It’s cute we wear red, but what else can we do?”

The pandemic has exacerbated concerns about heart health. It has pushed people toward unhealthy habits and led people to put off medical visits. Covid-19 has also directly affected people’s hearts. A newly published scientific study, according to a recent Washington Post article, found that “coronavirus patients were at ‘substantial’ risk of heart disease one year after their illness, increasing the odds of clots, arrhythmias, heart failure and related conditions.”

Seiji Ito, the cardiologist at Children’s National Hospital who treated Jaela, says her heart condition is called anomalous coronary artery. The condition, in which the coronary artery is in the wrong place, often goes undetected. It is responsible for athletes suddenly collapsing in the middle of an activity and sometimes dying.

“That can be the first and the last presentation” of the condition, Ito says.

He describes Jaela as having “a great recovery” and says they will continue to monitor her progress.

“I’m hoping she can go back to all of that activity that she used to enjoy, including cheerleading,” he says. “Part of the reason we did surgery is we want her to stay active and keep enjoying what she likes to do.”

Jaela is now 13 and loves baking. Her specialty is snickerdoodles. Before she tried cheerleading she enjoyed gymnastics, and she hopes to one day run track. She tells me this on a recent evening as she sits next to a heart-shaped pillow. She got it from Mended Hearts, an organization that supports heart patients, and it helped her get out of bed after her surgery.

The procedure left a prominent scar in the center of Jaela’s chest. Cierra worries her daughter will become self-conscious about it as she gets older. But when I ask Jaela about it that evening, she describes it as her “best friend,” explaining that it’s always going to be with her.

“It’s kind of a reminder that I really had heart surgery, which can be scary for lots of people,” she says. “It reminds me that I really got through this.”

After her daughter’s surgery, Cierra stopped painting bodies. But on a recent afternoon, to commemorate that a year had passed since her daughter’s pediatrician heard that faint sound, she picked up her paintbrush. With it, she wrote words on her daughter’s skin, They included “strong,” “beauty” and “fearless.”

When she came to the scar, she did the opposite of hide it. She painted it a glittering gold.

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