On an average day this past March, a group of girls all bursting with the energy of youth and excitement for their sport, participated in a lacrosse game while parents and friends watched, cheering from the sidelines.  In a moment that seemed to be plucked from the daydreams of every parent’s worst fear…a nine-year-old girl fell to the ground unconscious, later found to be a victim of cardiac arrest.

This happened in an instant, a clear “before” and “after” moment.  A situation when time stands still, people seem to move in slow motion, details may be forgotten.  For Melanie and Shawn Hall, this unfathomable circumstance—the reality that one’s child may not survive—had unbelievably, happened before.

Sierra Layton is a beautiful, vibrant child.  She looks like a best friend, a sister, a daughter, a granddaughter, a student, an athlete…and she is all of those things and more.  Despite her exuberance, and her physical appearance, Sierra masked a heart defect that came racing into the forefront of the public eye, the day she collapsed on a lacrosse field.

In 2001, Sierra was born at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital during a cesarean section.  As hospital rules dictate, a respiratory therapist must be on call in case the infant is under stress.  In Sierra’s case, that therapist was Anne Donoway, and she recognized a problem with Sierra right away.  Sierra had transposition of the great arteries, (TGA), meaning that her main arteries were backward.  Sierra underwent two open heart surgeries at A.I duPont before she turned one, enormously risky surgeries for an infant.  She appeared to be out of the woods, except for the occasional scheduled appointment with her cardiologist, but was otherwise happily engaged in a normal life.

In an undeniably kismet situation, the day Sierra collapsed on the lacrosse field, Anne Donoway was just leaving Atlantic General Hospital when she received a call for a pediatric code, and went back.  She returned to find Sierra, the baby girl whose life she helped save nine years earlier, and whom she still kept in touch with, in the ER.  Anne was part of the team who worked on Sierra, eventually stabilizing her.  Anne has said, “looking back, it’s the most critical I have seen a patient, who survived.”  Eventually Sierra was transferred to A.I duPont, where she received a third open heart surgery, and a defibrillator was placed in her abdomen.

At this current point Sierra must give up all of the things she loves most–riding her bike, lacrosse, gymnastics–basically everything that defines life for the average nine-year-old.  And that’s where it really gets tricky. Sierra’s parents have watched medical teams save their daughter’s life several times now, and it would be a gross understatement to say that they are simply thankful, but what happens to little Sierra in the aftermath?  It’s as if the pixy dust has been removed from her world.

Sierra faces a reality far beyond her years.  For one thing…she must view her heart differently, at an age when many children aren’t even aware of where that organ exists inside their bodies, let alone all that it does.  This is a difficult challenge for Melanie and Shawn too, whose role as parents transitioned from overseeing the day-to-day schoolwork and activities, to helping their daughter in a much deeper realm—finding a new purpose at such a young age.

Under the guidance of Anne Donoway, the Hall’s helped Sierra organize a cause connected to her condition.  It’s a way of seeing the positive, and empowering Sierra by showing that through her circumstance, Sierra is uniquely gifted to help others.

Sierra’s life was saved multiple times by people who possessed certain knowledge.  Anne Donoway was a trained respiratory therapist when she met Sierra on the day of her birth, but if she hadn’t paid attention to little signs, things may have turned out differently.  The day Sierra collapsed on the field, Filomena Olerta, an Atlantic General Hospital RN, and another nurse were on hand to watch their own children play lacrosse.  They administered CPR until the paramedics could arrive, likely saving Sierra’s life again.  It isn’t necessary to be a therapist or an RN to save a life; one simply has to know CPR.

Sierra’s mission is clear, and she’s taking the first step by holding a community CPR education day.  Six Atlantic General Hospital professionals will teach members of the community how to perform life-saving CPR; in case the unthinkable happens as it did to Sierra, someone will have the knowledge to save a life.

Sierra’s Community CPR day will be held August 21st, hosted by her parents at their Georgia House Restaurant in Millsboro, DE.   The hope is to have 100 members of the community sign up.

The event is free to the public, but donations will be accepted to offset the cost of materials and support Sierra’s goal to raise $1500 for the American Heart Association Walk.  She will continue on her quest to raise awareness by participating in the walk at Delaware Tech’s Georgetown campus in October.

Two classes will be available on August 21: 9:30am – 11:30 am and 12:30pm to 2:30 p.m. Registration is required. Please contact Chuck Hall at
chuck.hall@intervet.com or 302-745-8524.