For most 5-year-olds, dumping puzzle pieces on the family room floor and talking about favorite movies are normal behavior. For Courtney Wicker, they're close to a miracle.
Now in kindergarten at Dasher Green Elementary School, Courtney was born with a heart defect so serious that it made sucking a bottle the equivalent of doing aerobics 24 hours a day.
"Surgery wasn't an option," says Courtney's mother, Cheron Wicker, 38. "It was mandatory."
These days, Courtney's story is the focus of Maryland's American Heart Association's annual report, which is filled with pictures of her sparkling face and bright smile.
Her parents will tell their story Saturday at the Heart of Gold Gala at the Spear Center, a dinner that will honor the Howard County public school system for its support of the American Heart Association's school-based programs.
Courtney's presence will bring home the fact that the type of research supported by the American Heart Association can end up helping a neighbor or a friend.
"Heart disease, people sometimes don't realize the magnitude, how many people are affected by it," says Meg Schumacher, American Heart Association's area director. "Having her in the community makes you realize it could be your next door neighbor."
Courtney's broad grin shows her two front baby teeth, which she hopes will fall out soon. She likes Barbie dolls, frilly dresses and roller skating.
She talks of princesses and an imaginary husband who works all day, watches sports at night and sees his wife only when they go out to dinner together.
But, Courtney says, when she grows up, she wants to be a heart doctor.
That's not a surprising ambition for someone who has gone through what Courtney has.
Wicker's pregnancy with Courtney was healthy; she and her husband had no family history of heart disease. But less than a week after Courtney's birth in Columbia, a pediatric cardiologist said the infant had a rare heart abnormality called double outlet right ventricle.
She had two large holes in her heart, and her aorta -- the major artery that leads to the heart -- was connected to her left and right ventricle. It is usually connected only to the left.
Her condition worsened weekly. Courtney developed a viral infection that can be fatal to infants. Her lips turned blue. Her brain was enlarged. She had difficulty breathing.
Courtney's heart slowly filled with fluid. She wasn't retaining food in her tiny body. Her weight was measured in quarter-ounces. Without surgery, Courtney would have died because not enough blood was getting to her lungs.
During the months before surgery, Courtney's mother and father, Darrell -- who works at General Electric Capital -- ate an iron-rich diet to strengthen the blood they would donate for surgery.
Her parents researched the illness on the Internet and learned about the the researcher who discovered the technique that would save Courtney's life. The local chapter of the American Heart Association introduced the Wickers to doctors who explained the surgery in laymen's terms -- answering their 27 written questions.
In surgery, the doctor would patch one small hole, build a tunnel to redirect the flow of blood to Courtney's heart and clear a blockage in her pulmonary artery, which leads to her lungs.
"I had to know exactly what they were going to be doing, step by step," Cheron Wicker says.
That didn't make it any easier to give 6-month-old Courtney to the John Hopkins Hospital nurse outside the operating room.
"The moment I handed her to the nurse was probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my life" she says.
Courtney's smile dominates the scores of presurgery photos that Cheron Wicker took during those months.
"She doesn't look like she was close to death," her mother says, flipping through the pages of the photo albums. "Everybody says she is sunshine. She's definitely sunshine."
For now, her mother says, Courtney has a small heart murmur, but otherwise she's completely recovered.
"She's just like any other kindergartner," says Lauren Mischke, a teacher at Dasher Green. "I'd never know she'd been through so much."
Thirty-three Howard County schools are holding heart association events this year. On April 16, Dasher Green will participate in its first Jump for Heart fund-raiser.
When students there jump rope to raise funds for heart research, they will be wearing buttons that say "I'm jumping for Courtney."
Pub Date: 3/13/97