A grateful heart: Despite challenges, mother gives thanks for teen's new life

Nov. 24—This time last year, if you had told Rejoice Dumas what the coming year would hold for her and her family, she might've found it difficult to express even a mustard seed of thankfulness.

Within a span of about nine months, her teenage daughter, Journee, would be diagnosed with COVID-19, heart failure — which would require a lifesaving heart transplant — and lymphoma.

Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.

Today, though, as Americans celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday and all that goes with it, Dumas and her family can still find room in their hearts for gratitude.

"It's been a challenge," says Dumas, formerly of High Point but now living in Greensboro. "I couldn't imagine going through something like this when I went through it, so to be in this predicament and to make it out, I'm truly thankful."

The good news is that Journee, 14, shows no lingering effects from her bout with COVID last December, and this spring she received a new heart and has suffered no complications. And while she's not quite through with her chemotherapy treatments for the lymphoma, her latest scans indicate the chemo's working, and doctors expect her to be cancer-free.

Journee had been a healthy, free-spirited eighth-grader at Cornerstone Charter Academy until late December, when she came down with COVID. She recovered from the virus except for a lingering cough, which led to a chest X-ray in mid-January. The X-ray showed fluid around Journee's heart.

"They told us the left side of her heart was failing, and she would need a heart transplant," Dumas recalls. "We don't know why (her heart was failing). Her tests came back that it was nothing genetic or anything like that. All we know is that the COVID attacked her heart."

On March 3, she was listed as Status 1A on the transplant waiting list — the highest priority of medical urgency. In the meantime, she was admitted at Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte, where she had a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, implanted in her chest to help her weakened heart pump blood to the rest of her body until a new heart became available.

The wait for a new heart was understandably nerve-wracking.

"Every time the phone rings and it's the hospital calling, or every time a doctor walks in the room, you're expecting them to say, 'Hey, we have a heart,' " Dumas says. "When it happened, it was like, 'Wow, we finally got what we came here for.' "

The call came on April 28. Journee was in the playroom — she was the Uno champ on her floor — when her favorite nurse came and shared the good news with her.

"She runs back to her room and says, 'Mom, guess what — I have a heart!' " her mother recalls.

Dumas wept tears of joy.

The surgery took place the next day. It lasted more than 10 hours, but there were no complications. Journee was released on May 13, returning to her home for the first time in weeks.

She takes up to 10 pills a day — about half of them to stave off possible rejection of the new organ — but her heart's doing great.

"She's like full throttle now," Dumas says. "She wants to cheer. She wants to play basketball. She wants to make her TikToks. She calls herself Journee 2.0."

Journee 2.0 was doing great until late August, when she began feeling unwell. A series of tests and scans led to an unexpected diagnosis — diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, an aggressive type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Dumas admits the scary diagnosis rocked her.

"Why?" she remembers thinking. "We just came out of something life-threatening, and then to be hit with something else? Why?"

The good news is that doctors believe they caught the disease early, and chemo seems to be working. Journee goes for her final treatment Monday, and then she hopes to be lymphoma-free.

"That's another reason to be thankful," Dumas says.

Want another reason? Dumas received a letter from the family of Journee's heart donor, along with a photo of the young man whose unexpected death made Journee's new life possible. In addition to his heart, the family also donated his eyes and kidneys.

The joy is bittersweet, of course. Another family had to lose a loved one in order for Journee to live, a fact that's not lost on Journee's mother. She plans to write a letter to the family thanking them for saving her daughter's life.

She's also thankful for the support system of people who have helped her through Journee's health issues. They donated their money and their time. They organized fundraisers. They helped care for Dumas' son, 11-year-old Kyrie, when she needed to be at the hospital with Journee.

"Family, friends, my community — they were all there for me," Dumas says. "A lot of people who didn't even know me were willing to help. And the prayers — oh, the countless prayers. We weren't in this fight alone."

Above it all, Dumas says, she's thankful to her God.

"On days where I felt like it was too much, my faith kept me together," she says. "To be able to see my 14-year-old daughter smile and be her normal self again, even going through what she's going through, I give all glory to God."

jtomlin@hpenews.com — 336-888-3579