ROCK FALLS – Less than 6 months ago, 6-year-old Natalie Buck was at the top of a heart transplant list while fighting for her life.
Today she hits a milestone: It is her 7th birthday, and she has a new heart.
Natalie’s parents, Christy, 33, and Bob Buck, 44, came to Dillon Elementary School on Friday to celebrate with her classmates.
With a bright smile on her face, a twinkle in her big, blue eyes, and a spring in her step, Natalie said she is excited about her birthday, “and Christmas, and I am happy that I am alive!”
Natalie’s journey began days after the beginning of last school year’s summer break. She had symptoms of heat exhaustion and dehydration, but her problem turned out to be something much bigger – cardiomyopathy.
With only 15 percent of her heart working, she was put on a transplant list.
“The day after she was listed was when it made it real-real for us,” her father said. “She was put on a ventilator, had to be paralyzed, and couldn’t talk. I think that’s when we really realized it is out of our hands and there is nothing more you can do but pray.”
Their prayers were answered. Natalie received her transplanted heart June 27.
Her new heart is bigger, and used to pumping blood through a larger body, which led to high blood pressure.
At first, Natalie was taking 20 medications. She is down to about a dozen now, and within a year will taking only three or four.
Her brother, Jacob, 5, still plays with kid gloves, knowing he can’t roughhouse with his big sister too much.
“Natalie is his best friend,” their mother said. “He would help her a lot in the beginning – wanting to help her up, hold her hand, walk with her, and help her go down the slide. It was really kind of nice.”
Natalie is gaining weight and getting stronger and more energetic each day. She’s on the basketball team and enrolled in gymnastics.
“It’s the best birthday and Christmas present ever,” Natalie said Friday with a wide smile. “I like my new heart. It’s great! I feel fine, like I did before I got sick.”
Thanks to Operation North Pole, a not-for-profit organization that makes Christmas special for children with a life-threatening illness, the Bucks took the Polar Express and met Santa Claus.
He gave presents to everyone. Natalie received a Nintendo DS.
Natalie said she already has the best present she could think of, but told Santa her wish list this year includes Wreck-It Ralph and Fix-It Felix toys, a Lalaloopsy doll, baby dollies, the movie “Monster High” and anything with Justin Bieber.
Christy said the family and Natalie’s classmates are more conscious about germs now, and activities revolve around her medication schedule.
First-grade teacher Chris Lantz said she and the class were “a little apprehensive because of the severity” of Natalie’s procedure.
“But her mom stayed with her in class the first few days,” Lantz said.
Now free from hospital stays and physical therapy sessions, Natalie said she is happy to be back home with her parents, Jacob, and her 12-year-old sister, Molly.
She also is happy to be in first grade with her friends.
“I love school! And I’m not sick anymore,” she said with excitement. “I don’t get tired like I did before I got my new heart. Oh, and I want to eat more at night.”
Natalie said she would like to tell everyone from the hospital and the community, “Thank you for supporting me, and taking care of me. And thank you for sending me cards, because they made me happy.”
Her parents were “amazed” and grateful for the support.
“We’re looking forward to getting used to the new normal,” Bob said.
Blog updates and fundraising
Periodically, Bob Buck updates a blog that follows his daughter Natalie’s progress. To read it, go to www.carepages.com, and type OurLittleNAT in the search.
To help offset medical expenses, donations can be made to Our Little Nat and sent to Sterling Federal Bank, 110 E. Fourth St., Sterling, IL 61081.
A T-shirt fundraiser also is under way. A new design is available. It has three hearts across the top, with the words “Our Little Nat” in each. Beneath the hearts is written, “A new chance at life, June 27, 2012,” which is the date of her heart transplant.
Shirts cost $15 and are available from youth-small to quadruple XL, in yellow (Natalie’s favorite color) lime green and orange. They are on sale at D&M Embroidery, Bittersweet Salon & Boutique 1302 Third St. Suite B, Fulton. To order, call Debbie Wiersema at 815-589-3056.