Teen shares health story to benefit hospital

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NEW MARKET, Ind. (AP) — "You wouldn't know by looking at her."

That's what 14-year-old Megan Whitaker's parents and grandparents say.

Megan herself would rather not think about the four open-heart surgeries that she's had, or the brain surgery and the spinal fusion. Instead, she'd rather be on her cellphone and swimming as much as she can.

Megan, who lives in New Market and is an eighth grader at Southmont Junior High School, usually never talked about the surgeries.

She didn't want the sympathy, said her grandmother, Debi See, who lives in Crawfordsville. But sharing her story meant that Megan and her grandmother could help raise money for Riley Hospital for Children and promote the Race for Riley icon sales at Kroger.

"She wants to show other kids that they can fix you, too," See told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/TrTy1R ).

The two attended a district meeting at Kroger, where See has worked for 23 years and her husband, Tony, has worked for 20 years. At that meeting, Megan told her story and talked about the role Riley has had in her life.

"I know that kids will know what it's like now," Megan said, and acknowledged that speaking in front of a group was scary at first, but has become easier.

At the beginning of November, Megan was named a one of eight 2013 Riley Champions Presented by Kroger to be an ambassador for the hospital.

She has attended several events from an Indiana Pacers game to an Indianapolis Colts game to meeting Olympic gold medalist Lauren Cheney, who had heart surgery at Riley when she was 3, at the Riley Annual Luncheon.

"It's a way of giving back," See said. She said Kroger has stayed supportive of Megan - members of corporate call to ask how she is and employees wore T-shirts for Megan on the days she had surgery.

During the summer, Megan and See organized a fundraiser for Riley in the parking lot of Kroger. There was a bake sale, kids' games and music to raise money.

And the duo doesn't plan to stop. See said they'd love to do more bake sales and even a dance-a-thon.

"We really want to do it big now," See said.

When Megan was just a week old, See and Megan's mother, Christy Whitaker, took Megan for a checkup. At the time, nothing seemed odd or worrisome.

See said the doctor didn't like the way Megan's heart sounded and told them to take her to a specialist. There, the doctor said, "If we don't get her to Riley, she isn't going to make it," See said.

"When they said that, we fell apart," See said. "You could have knocked us over with a feather."

Megan was diagnosed with truncus arteriosus - meaning each of her heart chambers had only one blood vessel leading out of it instead of two.

At two weeks old, Megan had a heart valve surgery, and again at 4, 8 and 12 years old.

"The valves don't last forever," See said.

In November 2011, Megan had surgery for Chiari malformation because her brain tissue was protruding into her spinal column. Then on April, 30, 2012, she had a spinal fusion surgery for curvature of the spine.

"God delivered her broken, but beautiful," See said.

And with each surgery, Riley became more and more a part of Megan and her family's life.

They said the staff is like extended family and really cares - from the surgeon who calls Megan "his little peanut" to the nurse who took Megan to pick out something in the gift shop - Riley has always been there.

"It's so much more than a hospital," said Megan's father, Don Whitaker. He said it's Riley that keeps the family relaxed and calm when Megan is in the hospital.

Despite having a large family, See said she no one in the family had been to Riley before Megan.

"It was a total shock and a total blessing," she said.

Not long ago, the family learned that See's great-niece, Kaylee Warren, 7, had a brain tumor and she was sent to Riley, too. But for Kaylee, the illness is terminal, See said.

Megan wanted to see Kaylee right away and kept asking when the family was going to visit, Don Whitaker said. "It triggered something in her."

And at Kaylee's birthday party, Megan told Kaylee that Riley could help her too, See said.

"Riley gave us Megan and they will do everything they can for Kaylee," See said.

Don Whitaker said he once asked his daughter how she did it and stayed strong.

She said, "It's simple, Dad, I don't think about it," he said.

He said the family tries to keep the same philosophy.

"We don't think 'What if?', then we would be wanting to cuddle and be crying all the time," Don Whitaker said.

When Megan's in the hospital, Christy Whitaker won't leave her side, Don Whitaker wants to be the first person there when she wakes up and her younger sister Amanda, 11, won't sleep in the room she shares with Megan without her.

Megan sees how hard each surgery is on her family and she's braver than all of them, See said.

"I don't know where her bravery comes from," Don Whitaker said.

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Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

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