Last updated: December 24. 2013 5:07PM - 1944 Views
Jessica Johnson Staff reporter

Heart transplant recipient Samantha Riggs rides in the American Red Cross float in the Mount Airy Christmas parade. After reaching the one-year anniversary of when Samantha was rushed to the hospital with a rare heart condition, she is celebrating her Dec. 26 birthday with a blood drive at the American Red Cross in Mount Airy on Dec. 29 from 12 to 4:30 p.m.
Heart transplant recipient Samantha Riggs rides in the American Red Cross float in the Mount Airy Christmas parade. After reaching the one-year anniversary of when Samantha was rushed to the hospital with a rare heart condition, she is celebrating her Dec. 26 birthday with a blood drive at the American Red Cross in Mount Airy on Dec. 29 from 12 to 4:30 p.m.
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What a difference one year can bring.

Last year, Samantha Riggs celebrated Christmas and her tenth birthday on Dec. 26 in the hospital, awaiting a heart transplant after being rushed to Duke Pediatric Hospital in Durham in early December. Samantha was diagnosed with a rare condition, myocarditus, an inflammation and weakening of the heart muscle caused by a virus.

Fast forward to one year later — Samantha is happy and healthy. Her heart transplant was received in April, and now she has wish to share the gift of life with others, with a Blood Drive held in honor of her birthday.

Samantha’s Blood Drive is Dec. 29 at the American Red Cross building in Mount Airy, at 844 W. Lake Dr., from 12 to 4:30 p.m.

“Please come out and give blood to help celebrate my birthday,” was a message Samantha said she wanted to send out to the public, inviting everyone to participate in one of the acts that helped to save her life — she received more than 40 units of blood products while in the hospital.

Lynn Wilkes, donor recruitment representative with the American Red Cross, said the blood drive in honor of Samantha’s birthday coincides with the American Red Cross’ “Give Something that Means Something” winter campaign, which runs through Jan. 6.

Wilkes added that after Christmas blood donations tend to drop off as fewer donors make time to donate blood due to competing seasonal activities. “By doing something that doesn’t cost a thing, you can give an amazing gift — you can offer hope to a patient in need.”

The hope that is offered through blood donation is the hope that Samantha Riggs and her family clung to, and a huge reason Samantha’s mother Randi Riggs said this blood drive is so significant to both Samantha and for those the blood will help — it is a way to give back this holiday season that truly is life-changing.

“Without the help of others, we could have never gotten through what we went through,” Riggs said, “and that includes those who did everything from donating to praying for Samantha and our family.”

All blood types are needed to ensure a reliable supply for patients. A blood donor card or driver’s license or two other forms of identification are required at check-in. Individuals who are 17 years of age (age 16 with parental consent), weigh at least 110 pounds, and are in generally good health may be eligible to donate blood.

For more information on giving blood or platelets, visit redcrossblood.org.

A return to the court and highlights from the year

Last year, Samantha Riggs joined a basketball team for the first time, but only had a chance to play two games and attend a few practices before she was rushed to the hospital. This year, Samantha is once again a part of the basketball team, and played in five of eight games.

Watching Samantha play basketball elicited a wide variety of emotions for Samantha’s family, with dad Tony Riggs recalling watching his little girl on the court for the first time: “She’s out there playing and that’s a blessing, but in the back of your mind you’re always thinking, ‘That’s where it all started…’ That age group, they are up and down that court as fast as they can go and she kept up with them. She took breaks, of course, but did really good — we are proud.”

Tony said the experience of returning to the court was a “confidence boost” for Samantha, who is considering joining a volleyball team in the new year.

“At the first basketball practice, I was kind of nervous,” mom Randi Riggs recalled. “But then it just made me smile, to see her having fun…she’s running and having fun and you couldn’t tell at all, wouldn’t know she was sick if you were just looking from the sidelines. It makes me feel so good.”

Grandma Kathy Joyce said watching Samantha play basketball again was “very emotional, very thrilling…to think where she had come from and where she was a year ago.”

“A year seems like a long time, but then sometimes it doesn’t seem that long at all.”

Samantha has achieved multiple milestones this year, from returning to the court, to finally being able to enjoy spending the night with her friends.

Kathy said a big highlight was riding on the American Red Cross float for the Mount Airy Christmas parade, featuring Samantha popping up out of an oversized gift box. The float had a theme of blood and organ donations, to raise awareness for a gift that helped to save Samantha’s life.

“The float was meant to be a ‘thank you’ from Samantha’s Heart [Facebook] page, where so many people poured out their love and support and continue to keep up with Samantha’s progress,” Joyce said. Samantha’s Girl Scout troop were involved with the float as a Girl Scout project.

“We wanted to remind people of the gifts of life, which seemed very appropriate for the season,” Joyce said.

Another highlight this year for Samantha was the Teddy Bear Ball at Duke Children’s Hospital in Durham, which took place one year to day from when Samantha was taken to the hospital. Samantha was a guest of honor at the ball, along with another heart transplant recipient. Many of those who were on Samantha’s medical team were in attendance, Joyce recalled, including two of Samantha’s surgeons and several nurses. The family enjoyed spending time with those who became a second family while they lived in Durham during Samantha’s hospitalization and period of recovery after the transplant.

“She danced the entire time, all night,” her grandmother recalled. “It was amazing. Just to see her dancing and enjoying life, and knowing what it was like one year ago to the day.”

Samantha also was featured in a commercial for the American Red Cross, which led to the idea for the blood drive.

A 4-H project was another recent highlight for Samantha — she presented a project last week, which was based on how the heart works and how to keep it healthy, and made it to the into county-level competition.

Samantha also attended the Dixie Classic Fair this year, where she rode a roller coaster for the first time. “Last year, she was afraid to ride it, but now she says she isn’t afraid anymore,” Randi said.

Overall, Samantha’s health “has been good” and she underwent another heart cath and biopsy last week, with “everything doing well” and a level one on rejection. A zero level is ideal, Tony Riggs said, but “as long as it stays there, everything is good.”

This Christmas, he said the family was “just getting back to tradition,” and celebrating the season with family and loved ones. “What happened puts everything into perspective for us a little bit, we realize what is important now, what is essential.”

Kathy Joyce said each day that goes by sends her into a period of reflection, especially as they reach small anniversaries and milestones along the way. “Everything we come to now reminds us of where we were a year prior,” echoing Tony and Randi Riggs’ feelings that the entire experience has put life into perspective.

Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 or jessicajohnson@civitasmedia.com

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