Whole-heartedly resilient: Marine's daughter stays strong despite heart condition
By Cpl. Matthew A. Callahan
| Marine Corps Base Hawaii | September 20, 2013
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII --
Athena Parker seems like any other 4-year-old girl. She loves dancing, pretty colors, taking pictures and doesn’t do anything crazy without her stuffed animals. Jacklynn Parker, Athena’s mother, calls her a “little diva,” citing that her daughter is always declaring she’s “fabulous.” Her father, Sgt. Jonathan Parker, a military police officer with the Provost Marshal’s Office on Marine Corps Base Hawaii and her father, says she’s a “shopaholic.”
hypoplastic left heart syndrome
Provost Marshal's Office
Rady Children's Hospital
Athena is not like most girls her age, however. She’s had to fight her whole life. Since birth, Athena has undergone three open-heart surgeries and five heart catheters to treat her hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare congenital defect that only one in more than 4,000 children are born with a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
On Aug. 14, 2013, just six days after receiving her last open-heart surgery at Rady Children’s hospital, Athena stepped into the spotlight when she cut the ribbon for the opening of the facility’s new cardiovascular intensive care unit. When Athena was born, medical staff at Naval Medical Center San Diego told Jonathan and Jacklynn Parker their newborn had a small hole in her heart. The Parkers knew the condition of Athena was more severe during a meeting with their doctor.
“When the doctor told the Navy corpsman to ‘watch our kids’ and closed the door to his office with us, all I could think of was, ‘oh my god, she’s dead,’” said Jacklynn.
The family was told a part of Athena’s heart was not growing, and she ran the risk of dying before the age of 3. The Parkers had to make a life-changing decision for their little girl: take her home and love her until she slowly went to sleep, or risk it all and undergo a series of complex surgeries to improve Athena’s condition and give her a chance at a longer life, according to Jacklynn.
“I’ve known this man for 11 years, and that the only time I had seen Jonathan shed a tear,” said Jacklynn of her Marine spouse. “My husband was trained for every (combat situation), and he is the most in-control person I have ever met in my life. He was thrown into a situation where we wouldn’t know if (Athena) would live past the first surgery.”
Athena underwent her first surgery in the first week of her life. Unable to eat food, she was given a pacifier so she wouldn’t forget how to eat, according to Jacklynn. After doctors told the Parkers Athena was going to need a feeding tube, Jacklynn needed extra emotional support.
“I didn’t know what I would have done without him through it,” Jacklynn expressed. “I was crying and emotional just having a baby. I just didn’t want to see another tube in her, I was a mess,” Jacklynn told her husband on the way home from a hospital visit. “He just looked at me and said ‘I got it.’”
The next day, baby food in hand, Jonathan walked in to Athena’s room. He simply said, “eat,” and she ate for the first time, recalls Jacklynn. The first years coping with Athena’s condition “were hell,” said Jacklynn. “There’s really no other way to describe it than that. We were making trips back and forth to the hospital, trying to make things normal for our other two children (Angel, age 8, and Draco, age 6). Meanwhile (Jonathan) was taking care of us and his men.”
With Athena’s last surgery at Rady Children’s Hospital complete, she and her family flew back to their home aboard MCB Hawaii. The home of Sgt. Jonathan and Mrs. Jacklynn Parker is like most in their neighborhood aboard MCB Hawaii. Action figures belonging to their son are stacked neatly on a shelf beside a home entertainment system. Decorations and photos from Jonathan’s career as a Marine blanket the wall next to the stairs to the second floor. Stools in the kitchen are adorned with the colors and patterns of various Marine Corps uniforms, a project Jacklynn did herself.
In four years, with roughly $4 million dollars in medical care including three open-heart surgeries paid for by the military, the fight to maintain a normal life is far from over.
“She’s always looking to the next step,” said Jonathan. “(Athena) should be done with all her heart surgeries, the major ones.”
The relationship Athena has with her family and her condition is an open one.
“She knows she has a heart condition, and I talk freely with her about it,” said Athena’s mother. “She’ll be in and out of the hospital (for the rest of her life due to various reasons)."
But whether Athena is cuddling with her cat Poseidon, dancing around the living room or making a mountain of stuffed animals, her mother recalls one day when her daughter awoke from anesthesia. Jacklynn was praying her daughter didn’t have a stroke during surgery. After the doctors removed the breathing tube from Athena’s mouth, she looked up at her worried mother and declared, “I’m fabulous.”
149 days ago
My husband just retired from the Marine Corps after 20 years of service. Our daughter also has hypoplastic left heart syndrome. She celebrated her 18th birthday on Monday, Oct. 7th. We were stationed at Camp Lejeune when she was born. She had her surgeries in Pennsylvania. The Corps took very good care of us!! Prayers for your daughter!!
166 days ago
My son also has hypoplastic left heart, I am also a former MARINE. My son is 19 a sophomore in college. He was the goalie for his high school hockey team, he also was on the golf team. My point is I thank GOD everyday for him and all he has achieved. GOD BLESS you and your family. Brent is my hero like Athena he is the light that powers my soul.
169 days ago
My daughter's name is also Athena. She was born on the Camp Lester Naval Hospital, Okinawa. I shard this story with my wife and we are sending out good thought and prayers to Athena Parker. Stay strong and Semper Fi!