Jaden Makenzie Lauderdale 1/13/03-6/18/17
I write this with the heaviest of hearts and a face full of tears.
The world suffered a great loss on Sunday, June 18, when Greene County’s Shining Star, Jaden Lauderdale, passed away surrounded by the people who loved her the most, her close and loving family.
Not your typical 14-year old girl, Jaden touched many lives and gave selflessly to kids she knew she would probably never meet, those who will play on the playground she was determined to provide for the hospital that became her home when her illness mandated she stay until a donor heart could be found to replace her faulty one, and she could finally live a life that most of us take for granted.
But it was not to be.
Born January 13, 2003, Jaden Makenzie Lauderdale was afflicted with a condition known as hypoplastic left heart. Simply put, the infant Lauderdale was missing the left side of the organ. She had her first open heart surgery at one week old, a second at nine months old and another just after her second birthday. Complications developed, and she spent the next 82 days as a full-time Riley resident.
At age three, Lauderdale was diagnosed with a condition known as PLE, or Protein Losing Enteropathy. In children, PLE often occurs in conjunction with multiple conditions including those involving the heart. PLE is a liver disease resulting in the loss of protein and serum proteins in the gastrointestinal tract.
Lauderdale responded well to medications used to control the condition, until age 10.
“Then she started having flare-ups, where she would swell up and need to be hospitalized for intravenous infusions,” said mom Jessica.
In November of Lauderdale’s 10th year, she became very ill, when the medications lost some of their effect and the PLE raged out of control. According to Lauderdale’s mom, her doctors were not sure she would survive.
“Her kidneys had quit working,” the elder Lauderdale said. “She was extremely swelled and developed several complications.”
This hospital stay lasted until Christmas Eve.
Then Lauderdale, at just 10 years old, suffered a stroke, which her mother said caused short-term memory loss as well as personality changes.
At 13, Lauderdale had a pacemaker put in to help her heart work properly, as well as a stent, adding a fourth open-heart surgery to her expanding list of procedures undergone. The stent was put in in hopes of relieving her frequent PLE flare-ups.
This Jan. 18, Lauderdale suffered a setback, when her blood oxygen (O2) levels dropped into the 50’s and 60’s. Normal levels are in the 95 to 100 mm range, and anything under 90 mm is considered low. The dangerous condition is known as hypoxemia, and those with levels at 60 or less need supplemental oxygen.
“It was determined at that time that the hole was bigger than they thought,” said Lauderdale’s mom Jessica. “Sometimes her levels can drop down to the 20’s, and she can’t breathe well,” said Jaden’s mom Jessica of that time period.
On Jan. 30, the decision was made to have Jaden placed on the list to receive a donor heart when one became available. At one point, a matching donor heart was located, but the donor had been too tall in life for his or her heart to serve Jaden.
And so she waited.
For 19 weeks and 6 days, she waited. And while she waited, she changed the world.
Not content to sit around and watch the time pass, Jaden decided Riley Hospital needed an outdoor playground, and she decided that she was going to make it happen. Using her innate talent for and love of cooking, Jaden started a weekly bake sale to raise the $10,000 she was told she would need to build a new playground. Her bake sale, along with other fundraisers put on by family and friends, raised $5,000 in three weeks.
“She was so kind, stubborn, loving and strong willed,” said mom Jessica. “She was the bravest, strongest person we knew.”
Impressed? It gets better.
The M.A. Rooney Foundation of Indianapolis heard of Jaden’s efforts, and stopped by Riley one day to present the compassionate teen with a check to match what she had raised, bringing her accomplishment to $10,000.
Goal reached, all done, right? Nope.
Jaden’s Journey attracted the attention of the Greene County Daily World, and, very intrigued by this young lady’s story, I wrote about her. I was a big fan from the start. This kid, who loved watching scary movies, playing a music selection described by mom Jessica as ‘a little risky’ while in the hospital, and leading late night dance parties with her night nurses, was something very special.
She was nominated by her mom when the Greene County Daily World held its ‘Bright Futures’ contest, meant to discover and honor Greene County’s shining stars, the youth that make a difference. Of the 10 finalists, Jaden was chosen as number one. I am told that of the six people on the judging panel, five chose Jaden as Greene County’s Shining Star.
At the banquet, almost all of the ten finalists were present, and hearing their stories read out loud to attendees was truly heartwarming. Jaden, attending the event via Facetime with her sister, heard her name announced as the winner from her bed at Riley, seeing the faces of her proud family reflecting their pride in the teen.
“It’s just amazing,” said Lauderdale’s aunt, Stephanie Buskirk. “We are so proud of her.”
Lauderdale’s mom Jessica, a teacher at Bloomfield Elementary, expressed her surprise as well.
“We didn’t expect that,” the elder Lauderdale said with tears in her eyes, “She had such a big smile on her face when she heard. She continues to make her family very proud.”
Contacted after the win, Jaden herself seemed surprised.
“I’m happy,” she said. “I’m so happy.”
She never understood why people made such a big deal out of what she had done. To Jaden, caring about other people came as naturally as blinking her eyes.
Jaden’s elementary school principal, Mary Jane Elkins, remembers her entering kindergarten.
“I remember a spunky little six-year old,” she said. “As she progressed in school, it was evident to the entire staff that Jaden was surrounded by a devoted, loving, caring family who were determined to give her the best childhood a little girl could ever dream.”
During a ceremony held to present Jaden with her own “Riley wagon,” her cardiologist, Dr. Eric Ebenroth, mentioned how he had known Jaden her whole life and, while he cared about all of his patients equally, Jaden was something special.
I imagine the cardio unit at Riley must be a very somber place tonight.
On Facebook, posting about Jaden’s last day, her mom wrote, “Jaden had a wonderful day with her wagon unveiling, ice cream cake and visiting with her friend Maddy. She was fine when I left, and even texting me. Amazing how quickly things change. She was such a strong person and made such an impact. She is in Heaven now, with her BFF Alexa.”
Jaden made an impact on every person she met. I think of her as one of those divine (and I use the term literally) souls who grace our planet for too short a time, touching and improving lives, teaching lessons in compassion, humility, gratitude and selflessness that the world would benefit from learning.
“When I think of Jaden, I think of a strong and inspirational young lady,” said Bloomfield Principal David Dean. “She was independent and liked to handle things herself. She loved coffee! She would jump at any opportunity to have a cup, if asked. More than anything, I will remember a courageous, beautiful young lady who battled her entire life to live it to its fullest. She was an example to us all.”
Elkins added, “She was able to rally a school, a community and a state to support her love of family, by creating a simple dream of funding a playground. Simply said, Jaden understood that life truly is about putting family first, and just being together.”
Someone on Facebook started an idea of “Flat Jaden,” a brilliant idea. She would have given almost anything to be anywhere but that hospital bed, and so many people stepped up to print her picture, save it to their phone or use Photoshop to show Jaden’s pretty face in pictures of themselves on vacation, hanging out and other activities we mostly don’t notice how lucky we are to be able to do.
According to her mom, Jaden loved it, seeing herself with different people in different places and seeing how many people cared about her.
Just because she no longer lives doesn’t mean Flat Jaden should not. I printed up several pictures of her, and posted the pictures of her image with us while our newspaper team splattered runners and walkers with bright pink paint at the Color Run.
I think she would have loved to be there, and I will take her with me every time I do something fun like that, posting the pictures to Facebook using #flatjaden each time. You should, too, I have plenty printed up, come get one at the paper, or let me know you need one and you shall have it.
Speaking of living on, Jaden’s Journey is not over just yet. Riley Hospital’s Riley Foundation will carry on what Jaden started, as will her family members and assorted fans, including myself.
Her fundraising campaign had reached more than $15,000 before she passed.
How many teenagers do you know who have even come close to such generosity?
Yep, me too.............recently, Jaden decided on an ADA-accessible playground design to accommodate all children, particularly those with special needs. The price tag rose to $62,000 and she just got more determined.
But her time on Earth was cut short before she could accomplish the new goal.
Or was it?
“She’s not done giving back,” said her mom on Monday. “She touched and blessed so many lives. I found out last week that the (M.A.) Rooney Foundation put up the rest of the money for her playground. I was going to surprise her with it this week.”
The family, along with their daughter, had thought up lots of places and ways to spend what she raised, all of them to benefit others. They will honor her memory by honoring her wishes.
“She brought this community together, and we will continue to honor her,” her mom said. “She asked me at 2 a.m., the morning after her 5K, if we could do it again next year so she could be there. She will forever be with us in our hearts.”
Principal Elkins added, “Jaden’s Journey will continue when Riley patients and their families are able to go outside and experience the simple joy of playing together on Jaden’s Playground.”
I remember texting with Jaden, going back and forth with ideas for her playground and sending goofy selfies of ourselves. We got sillier and sillier with the names, Jaden finally suggesting the name “Garbage Dump.”
I replied with a photo of a playground featuring a slide that ended in a dumpster. “Here ya go,” I added. She replied with an image of a hand, palm to the camera, with the word “NO” written in black ink.
She changed me, I have to admit.
I’ve always been a pretty empathetic and giving person, but I was humbled and almost shamed by the amazing accomplishments of this girl.
Imagine what she could have done if a heart had been found before her clock wound down.
“All I know is that she was loved by everyone in her community, and she has made a great impact on a lot of people’s lives,” said older sister Tara. “I will miss her very much, but I know she is in a better place now. Instead of me watching out for her she will be watching out for me. I love you Jaden.”
The death of a child is, inarguably, a tragedy. The death of Jaden Lauderdale makes the world a bleaker place. If one family, just one, when faced with the loss of their child, had made the decision to donate their child’s organs, Jaden might still be changing the world, and I wouldn’t be writing this.
If you haven’t considered becoming an organ donor, please do. Unless you have objections for religious reasons, what purpose will your parts serve when you die? I have always been a firm believer, and whatever I haven’t worn out will go to others when I go. I’ll be quite done with every organ in my body, and if someone else can live better, or live at all because they received what I can no longer use, I’ll die happy.
If the meaning of life is to discover the thing you are good at, and if the purpose of life is to use that gift to give to others, then Jaden Lauderdale’s was a life well-lived.
I will miss her.........
Funeral services for Jaden Lauderdale will be conducted at 12 p.m. Thursday at the Harvest Community Church located in rural Bloomfield, with interment following in Mt. Nebo cemetery.
Public visitation for Jaden will be held from 4-8 p.m. Wednesday and 1 hour prior to services at Harvest Community Church.
The church is located at 1482 Harvest Church Road in Bloomfield.
The Family asks that all memorial contributions be made to the Riley Children’s Foundation, attention Jaden’s Journey.