Upcoming benefit raising funds to support 11-year-old's heart transplant recovery

Nov. 24—Most years, Debbie Martinez Garcia spends Thanksgiving in the traditional way: surrounded by family and a table of potluck dishes brought by different relatives. She brings the pumpkin pies, the kind her children grew up enjoying on Thanksgiving Day.

This year, though, Thanksgiving will look different for the family. The holiday falls in the middle of Martinez Garcia's efforts to organize a benefit Dec. 9 for her granddaughter, Aaliyah Montoya, who is recovering from a heart transplant at Children's Hospital Colorado, near Denver.

For the most part, Aaliyah is a regular 11-year-old. She's a girly girl, her grandmother said, who loves cats, makeup, nail polish and producing made-up movies and skits. She paints and draws, using vibrant colors — magenta, purple, forest green — and signing her initials in curling script.

Sometimes, the Montoyas even drive into the mountains outside Santa Fe — their beloved hometown, where Aaliyah's father, Joshua Montoya Sr., said the family has lived "forever" — and snap photos of the outdoors for Aaliyah to reproduce in pen and paint.

Aaliyah was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy — a heart condition that causes the chambers of the heart to thin, stretch and enlarge — in May 2021, Joshua Montoya Sr. said. The diagnosis stunned doctors; aside from some fatigue, Aaliyah had no symptoms.

But for the Montoya family, the idea a child could have dilated cardiomyopathy, even without clear symptoms pointing to the condition, was all too familiar. In 2014, the Montoyas' eldest child, Joshua Montoya Jr., developed dilated cardiomyopathy at 4 years old, after an X-ray determined his heart was three times the normal size.

The diagnosis resulted in a stay at University of New Mexico Children's Hospital, then Children's Hospital Colorado, during which Joshua Jr.'s heart stopped and doctor's inserted an artificial heart into the preschooler's body. The family waited seven months for a heart transplant.

Since the transplant, Joshua Jr. has been doing "fantastic" heart-wise, his father said. But the family has kept a close eye on Joshua Jr.'s condition with checkups every few months and biopsies every other year to ensure his body has not rejected the transplanted heart.

Doctors watched Aaliyah's heart, too, with appointments every few years to check for enlargement and fatigue. Her heart was healthy until last May; it's likely Aaliyah developed cardiomyopathy around the age of 10, much later than her brother.

"We got struck twice with lightning, with the same condition," Joshua Montoya Sr. said.

Doctors initially thought Aaliyah's heart condition could be managed with medication, but that changed one Thursday in October, when Aaliyah came home from school tired and vomited. By Saturday, when the fatigue hadn't subsided, her parents took her to the doctor.

Something was wrong with Aaliyah's heart.

"Right when they put the EKG leads on her, her heart rate was going from 120 to 150 to 160. It was all over the place, and about five doctors came in. At that point, we knew it was pretty bad," Joshua Montoya Sr. recalled.

Immediately, hospital staff made plans to fly Aaliyah to Children's Hospital Colorado. The girl and her mother, Destiny Montoya, loaded into an ambulance. They were en route to the airport — a helicopter awaiting their arrival — when Aaliyah's heart stopped.

Ambulance personnel performed chest compressions on Aaliyah for 45 minutes.

No heartbeat.

The ambulance returned to the hospital, where Aaliyah was placed on life support. Joshua Montoya Sr. said doctors weren't sure if Aaliyah was going to have any brain activity; her heart had stopped for such a long time that blood flow to her brain had halted.

But late that night, Aaliyah woke up. She recognized her parents and moved her limbs on command. Her brain was all right.

On Oct. 10 — five days after she first started experiencing symptoms — Aaliyah was transferred to Children's Hospital Colorado. After a week there, doctors implanted an artificial heart in Aaliyah's chest. Two weeks later, on Nov. 3, Aaliyah received a heart transplant.

Now, she'll spend months in Colorado — staying within one hour of the hospital — as she recovers from the transplant and attends doctors' appointments. If biopsies reveal no signs of rejection of her new heart, Aaliyah may get to come home in February or March, Joshua Montoya Sr. said.

When Aaliyah moved to Children's Hospital Colorado, her family moved with her. Joshua Montoya Sr. and Destiny Montoya packed up their other two children, Joshua Jr., now 13, and Aria, 7, and moved to an apartment near the hospital dedicated to housing families as their children receive medical treatment. They coordinated virtual schooling for their youngest and eldest children while keeping track of medical care and doctor's appointments for their middle child.

The move required Joshua Montoya Sr., who works for the New Mexico Gas Company, and Destiny, who works for the state of New Mexico, to leave their jobs. Although they'll both be eligible to be hired back once their situation has calmed and the family has retained their health insurance, the Montoyas' typical expenses — rent, car payments, credit card bills — haven't disappeared.

The upheaval has tested the entire family, Joshua Montoya Sr. said.

Martinez Garcia, Joshua Montoya Sr.'s mother and Aaliyah's grandmother, has been visiting the Montoyas in Colorado as much as she can, about every other weekend since they arrived. She said she follows a simple rule: "If they can't come to me, I will go to them."

The Montoyas can't enjoy Martinez Garcia's Thanksgiving pies this year. Because Aaliyah's immune system is suppressed due to the transplant, the family did not want to risk visiting family or friends. They'll eat the traditional feast in their Colorado apartment.

But the distance hasn't stopped Martinez Garcia from supporting her family. On Dec. 9, she'll host a benefit for Aaliyah, complete with dinner, dancing and raffle prizes. The event will ensure the Montoyas are able to survive throughout their time in Colorado and pay for any treatment Aaliyah will need.

So far, Martinez Garcia and her family have seen "overwhelming" support for the event, with local businesses donating food and space for the festivities and community members happily purchasing tickets.

"The community has really come and helped us out," the grandmother said.