Peyton West woke up early Thursday morning, his first day back to school.
Carrying his red backpack, wearing his gray shirt and his red-framed glasses — red and gray are his favorite colors — he posed for a first-day-of-school picture outside his family's house in Ohio, just outside Cincinnati.
The 13-year-old, who was born with only the right side of his heart functioning, had just recovered from a heart transplant followed by grueling months of recovery. Peyton seemed to be adjusting well to his new heart, until that Thursday morning, five months after his surgery. While on the car ride to school, he told his older brother that he was not feeling well, Peyton's father, Corey West, told The Washington Post.
“Please pray,” the boy's family wrote at about 8:30 a.m. on a Facebook page that chronicled his journey — the countless hours at the hospital, the several near-death experiences, the search for a donor, his recovery, his efforts to live life normally.
For more than two hours, Peyton did not have a heartbeat, as doctors tried to revive him, his father said. Finally, his family decided that the fight was over.
Peyton died at 10:45 a.m.
“We just kind of realized that, you know, his body is just tired and worn down,” West said. “He had an awesome five months. Without that organ donation, we wouldn't have had these five months for Peyton to live like he hadn't lived before.”
The story of the boy fondly nicknamed Warrior Heart has resonated not only in Goshen, Ohio, where his family lives, but also across the country. A GoFundMe page to help pay for his funeral has raised close to $12,000 as of Sunday, far surpassing its $7,500 goal. A local print shop has organized a fundraiser for the family by selling shirts that bear Peyton's name on the front. On the back are the words “FOREVER OUR WARRIOR.”
The Facebook page has captivated many and racked up nearly 6,000 followers. There, his parents shared Peyton's story, starting from before he was even born.
His mother, Melissa West, was 35 weeks pregnant when she found out that her son would spend the rest of his life trying to survive. By the time Peyton was 5, he had survived three open-heart surgeries. The first happened when he was just a day old. He had another one five months later and a third one just before his 5th birthday.
The third surgery nearly killed Peyton, his family wrote on the Facebook page. He suffered some brain damage, and he had to relearn how to crawl, walk, eat, speak — all the basic functions.
“Imagine waking up right before your 5th birthday and having no idea why you can no longer move your body or communicate with your family, but remembering what life was like when you could,” his family wrote.
But Peyton managed to recover. He often smiled and cracked “odd jokes,” his family wrote. He rarely complained, even when he was not feeling well.
Everything seemed okay for the next several years. But in December, when Peyton went in for a regular cardiology appointment as he had done every six months, doctors said the only functioning side of his heart was failing — and failing fast. His only hope was a heart transplant. Peyton was admitted to the hospital shortly after.
For weeks, his family waited for a donor.
On March 5, Peyton was “teetering on the edge,” his mother wrote on the Facebook page.
“I can't say or type it but you know what I mean. He is sleepily awake and alert, but the doctor has said this is a very serious and real situation & they feel they are running out of options on how they can help him until a heart is available,” Melissa West wrote.
A few states away, in Iowa, a 2015 Chevy Silverado and a 2000 Mercury Cougar collided on a highway, Newton Daily News reported. A 12-year-old boy and his parents were airlifted to a hospital. The parents survived, but the boy, Derek Cisneros, was brain dead when he arrived at the hospital. He was taken off life support on March 7. His family decided to donate his organs.
“I'm getting a new heart today,” Peyton said in a video posted on March 9. He was on the operating table a few hours later. The surgery lasted until the following morning.
Not long after, Peyton's family began sharing pictures of him awake as he lay on his hospital bed. Wearing his red-framed glasses, Peyton smiled in every picture. That countless tubes and hospital equipment were attached to his body didn't seem to bother him.
A long, vertical scar extended from his collar bone down to his abdomen.
“Peyton had all the reasons in the world to be so mad and just be down,” Corey West said, “but he wasn't.”
Peyton was discharged several weeks later, but his road to recovery was far from over.
“He has traded one heart condition for another and a lifetime of medications and autoimmune issues,” his family wrote. “But this boy is amazing and most days has had a huge smile and loves to joke.”
Peyton had to wear a mask to protect himself from germs. He had to be on constant medication. And he had to always be within a few miles of the hospital. So, for several months, his family lived out of a hotel not far from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Some days, Peyton seemed to be improving. Other days, he showed signs of rejecting his new heart and he was back in the hospital again, according to his family. Still, he enjoyed his new freedom. He played with his dog, watched soccer at Buffalo Wild Wings, played catch with his brother, rode horses, explored Cincinnati and went to ballgames.
By May, pictures of Peyton no longer showed a thin, frail-looking boy. He appeared healthier, his cheeks chubbier.
Later that month, the two families connected by tragedy finally met — as evidenced by more than 100 pictures shared on the Facebook page, which by then had a new profile photo: side-by-side pictures of Peyton and Derek.
The families attended events, went to restaurants and explored museums. One picture shows Peyton in a tight embrace with Derek's parents, Blanca Gudino-Marin and Victor Cisneros-Bravo. Another picture shows Peyton kissing Derek's mother on the cheek.
“It was such an amazing experience just to meet them,” Corey West said. “Obviously, we're sad for them, but they were very happy to see Derek live on through Peyton. Our families became close.”
Then came July 26, when the West family gathered to celebrate Derek's birthday. He would've been 13.
“Although you passed, you live on through Peyton and we will never forget that. We will honor you every day. You're our hero and champion,” Peyton's family wrote.
Before Peyton left for his first day of school on Thursday, he texted Derek's mother.
“Hey, it's my first day of school. I'm in eighth grade,” Peyton told her, according to his father.
But Peyton was rushed to the hospital just minutes after he left home.
Several hours after he died, his family shared Peyton's first-day-of-school photo. The caption reads: “Love you buddy. So strong.”