Heart of gold

Philip Harnden photos
Joplyn Jennings is celebrating her third birthday this Saturday with a blood-drive themed party as she gets ready to undergo her third of three procedures to heal her heart.
Jen Kocher jen@douglas-budget.com
It’s fair to say that Joplyn Jennings is one tough kid, or as her father Allen calls her, “a feisty little fighter.” 
“She’s full of it,” Allen laughs. “Always has to keep up with the boys, even when it completely tires her out.”
Playing hockey is her particular weakness. The second Allen hands her her miniature, Joplyn-sized hockey stick, Joplyn’s smile widens and she’s off. Not even her pretty black and white party dress holds her back as begins whacking currant berries on the family’s back lawn with the strength of Wayne Gretsky. 
At this point, her heart is fighting to keep up with her physically as she prepares to head to Denver for her third and, hopefully final, procedure to rebuild her left ventricle. 
Joplyn was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which is a congenital (meaning present at birth) defect that causes the structures on the left side of the heart to not develop properly (or at all), leaving a hole between the chambers and making it hard for the heart to pump oxygen-rich blood to the body properly. 
In a properly functioning heart, the right side pumps oxygen-poor blood from heart to the lungs while the left side in turn pumps the oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. Without a division between chambers the heart chambers the red and blue blood flows together into what’s called ‘mixed’ blood. 
Although the disease can affect the development of the heart in a few different ways, for Joplyn it means she was born with a severely underdeveloped left ventricle, which prevented her heart from effectively pumping the oxygen-rich blood back out to the body.
Luckily for Joplyn, she was born in North Dakota where Allen was working at the time or the results may have been disastrous.
By law, North Dakota requires doctors to check the oxygen levels in a baby’s extremities before allowing them to leave the hospital, which in effect, is the only way to detect this syndrome. Had the Jennings been in Wyoming, or another like-minded state that does not legally require this procedure, she may have died. For this reason, Allen is currently working with local legislators to try to get this law passed in Wyoming.
Luckily, too, Joplyn was born in this century because according to Allen, up until 1983, there were no medical procedures in place to treat the condition.
Today, however, doctors can restore the heart using the Norwood procedure, a three-stage heart surgery with complicated names that essentially allows the surgeon to build the systemic circuits in the damaged region of the heart so that they can both oxygenize and effectively distribute the blood to the body.
It’s complicated to explain and Allen sounds like a medical encyclopedia as he describes the ins an outs of all three procedures with the precision of an engineer. He’s had to learn quickly, he explains.
“It’s kinda like drinking from a fire hose,” he says, describing the countless hours of reading and conversations with doctors to get to this point.
Joplyn had the first procedure when she was seven days old.
At this point, part of her heart was roughly the size of a thumbnail and her first surgery in August of 2013, which she had in Minnesota after being after being airlifted from North Dakota, lasted roughly 13 hours. She spent the next month and a half in the hospital recovering.
The trick now was to get her home to Glenrock, where Allen and his wife Miranda and three children had since returned. Given that the increase in altitude affects the way in which the heart oxygenates, it was a risky drive.
The Jennings weren’t sure what to expect.
As Allen feared, the altitude pressure wreaked havoc on Joplyn’s heart. Luckily, the Jennings made a record-speed journey to Denver to get her stabilized.
She spent another couple weeks at the hospital before returning home.
Once home, however, Joplyn did well, according to Allen, and other than a bit of huffing and puffing, her oxygen levels were between 60-80 percent.  Six months later, she had the second procedure, which again was a success.
Today, other than her lips being a little blue from lack of oxygen and having a slight dusky color to her skin as a result of her ‘mixed’ blood, it’s hard to tell from just looking at her than anything is wrong.
With the exception of getting winded easily, she does a good job keeping up with her two older brothers, Bryston and Oakland, and of course, play hockey.
She’s a tough kid, Allen says, and next week she will be heading back to Denver for her third, and hopefully, final procedure to fully restore her heart. 
She’s also about to celebrate her third birthday with a blood drive this Saturday from 12:30-4 p.m. at the Glenrock library community building and invite the community to give blood. In lieu of gifts for Joplyn, the family asks that you instead give a donation to Joplyn’s rider, Kendall, who she will be sponsoring in the Cardiac Climbers race this weekend (see https://www.facebook.com/CardiacClimbers/). The race is a fundraiser that benefits the Denver Children’s Hospital.


Glenrock Independent

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