The Good Stuff: A brand new beat

Incoming Benton High School freshman continues to amaze on the track despite pacemaker

A Brand-New Beat: Young teen has an amazing heart, even if it's attached to wires and batteries

SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) - Jamie Willis is an incoming freshman at Benton High School. Just days ago, she found out she made the girls’ soccer team.

“I was pretty happy about that. I’m not going to lie,” said the 14-year-old with an ear-to-ear smile on her face.

It’s just the latest athletic accomplishment for this young teen who’s had a pacemaker implanted in her chest since she was 5-years-old.

A young Jamie Willis checking out her heart
A young Jamie Willis checking out her heart

"I want to earn it. I don't want it to be handed to me," Jamie continues, making clear she rarely ever brings up her medical condition to others, especially coaches.

“Because I don’t feel like telling them,” Jamie explains. “As long as I’m good in hurdles and the long jump, they really don’t need to know.”

According to Jamie’s mother, Janelle Willis, Jamie spent the first 5 years of her life fighting numerous medical issues, many times presenting themselves as allergies.

“I kept saying this has to be bigger than an allergen,” Janelle said.

And she was right — as she would discover along with Jamie’s pediatrician Dr. Galen Sanders.

“She had problems with fatigue and allergies and frequent respiratory infections since birth,” Dr. Sanders said.

Soon after beginning his exam of Jamie, Dr. Sanders had discovered something extremely significant, a heart murmur.

"Her heart wasn't beating fast enough to pump the blood efficiently," Dr. Sanders explains, results gathered from extensive testing by cardiologists and other medical experts.

"Her chamber was filling with more blood and the heart was working harder to pump that blood out."

Janelle says she was both relieved and horrified when she got the diagnosis, complete congenital heart block.

That's when there is a complete interruption of all electrical communication between the top two chambers in the heart and the bottom two. It's necessary for the top and bottom sets of chambers to work together as it pumps the blood in and out of the heart.

“Over time, her heart rate would have dropped significantly and gone into heart failure,” Dr. Sanders added..

Soon after, a pacemaker was implanted to help the heart pump the blood.

An X-ray showing the first of two pacemakers implanted in Jamie Willis of Bossier Parish
An X-ray showing the first of two pacemakers implanted in Jamie Willis of Bossier Parish

The beats weren't perfectly synchronized, but it gave Jamie's heart new life.

"Will she drop dead in the field? I need to know," recalls Janelle, concerned Jamie could risk losing her life if she continues to play sports.

But Jamie's parents were assured it was safe, and good thing, because Jamie's requests to keep playing continued to mount.

'She's very competitive and did very well in cross country in the 6th grade, passing everybody up," says Benton Middle School coach Terrie Streetman.

And by the 7th and 8th grade, Jamie discovered two new loves, jumping hurdles and the long jump.

“I was like, ‘Wow’, I just couldn’t believe it,” shares fellow middle school coach Jessica Benoit. “Somebody with a pacemaker was running and doing what she was doing.”

Jamie won district in both her 7th and 8th grade years in both hurdles and the long jump.

14-year-old Jamie Willis won district in the long jump and hurdles in both her 7th and 8th grade years.
14-year-old Jamie Willis won district in the long jump and hurdles in both her 7th and 8th grade years.

As soon as her 8th grade year was over in May of 2018, it was back to the surgeons to give her heart a brand new beat, an adult pacemaker.

"May of 2018 is the first time Jamie's heart beat correctly, in her whole life," Janelle brags.

And not six weeks after surgery, Jamie was back on the track, competing in the long jump at the U.S. Junior Olympics.

Janelle admits she was dogged in her determination to find an answer, and extremely fortunate Dr. Sanders was the first of many doctors to guide Jamie back to health.

“I went in there defeated, beat down, exhausted, and terrified,” Janelle said. “And I left being heard.”

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