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The celebration had barely come to a close for Janai Rembert and her family when the unthinkable happened.
Janai had just celebrated her fourth birthday, but she continued to have what seemed to be symptoms of a cold. But as the cold seemed to be getting worse instead of better, her mother, Natalie Gamble, decided to take her to the emergency room at their local hospital in Tuscaloosa. At first, doctors thought she may have pneumonia. But many hours and X-rays later, they discovered fluid on her lungs, liver and kidneys. The unexpected findings led doctors to immediately transfer Janai to Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham via helicopter.
Once Janai was at Children’s, doctors began doing further X-rays and testing to determine what was going on. She was soon diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. “They think it was brought on possibly by contracting COVID-19 at some point previously,” Natalie explained. “When she then caught the cold, her body couldn’t fight it off and began attacking her heart.”
At first, doctors hoped to save Janai’s heart, but after just two days, they determined it was simply too weak to continue functioning on its own. “It was a huge shock going from a lively 4-year-old that had never had any medical issues to seeing her laying in a hospital bed barely able to open her eyes,” Natalie said. “It was a lot to take in and process.”
Also a shock to Natalie was hearing that Janai needed a heart transplant. “The hospital worked really quickly to get her on the transplant list, and she went on as the highest need you can be,” Natalie said. “It just became a matter of waiting for a donor that would be a match.”
In the meantime, Janai’s heart needed help. Her doctors chose to insert a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to help the heart pump blood. “Once she got the LVAD, she was doing pretty good while we waited, which was a relief because we did have quite the wait,” Natalie added. 
Months went by while Janai was in the hospital waiting for a heart. The family spent many holidays in the hospital during that time. “I tried to give her the best normal life I could, and I can’t thank the staff at Children’s enough for their help,” Natalie said. “I was a single mom with two kids, and they really stepped in to help me because I had to also go back to work during that time too.”
Then on June 2, 2022, Natalie got the phone call they had been waiting for: A heart was available, and it was believed to be a match. The very next day, Janai was in the long-anticipated surgery. “She did have some complications because she had been on the LVAD so long, but otherwise she did great,” Natalie said. “From there, it was just staying at Children’s long enough to make sure her body wouldn’t reject the heart.”
Just over a month later, Janai was able to go home for the first time in almost a year. Since then, she’s thrived. She turned 5 and started attending kindergarten. “She loves it,” Natalie said. “She’s made progress faster than they expected considering everything she went through.”
Janai continues to progress, visiting Children’s only for routine checkups, but each appointment feels more like a visit to see family. “The doctors and nurses that were on the fourth floor with us became our family,” Natalie said. “The staff became her surrogate family—our surrogate family—and I can’t thank them enough for the love and care they showed to her. Children’s did everything possible to make her life as normal as possible, and I’m incredibly grateful.”