The most extraordinary part of Rebekah Whitfield's days are how very ordinary they are now.
Like many of her classmates, she is busy making preparations for the start of her senior year at Chattanooga Christian School. And she has soccer practice every afternoon.
The fact that Whitfield has settled into such a typical teenage routine is a testament to her perseverance. Only 11 months ago she underwent a five-hour surgery at Vanderbilt Medical Center to have a pacemaker implanted to correct a condition that, without warning, would cause her to faint because of a sudden spike in her heart rate.
"It started late in my sixth-grade year, and at first we were told that I had probably just gotten overheated or that it was because I had grown so rapidly (seven inches in nine months)," Whitfield said. "But it kept happening, and the worst part was I passed out a few times in school, and that was embarrassing and scary.
"I just wanted to be normal again."
After five days of cardiology tests at Vanderbilt, Whitfield was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which according to Dr. William Warren - a cardiologist with the Chattanooga Heart Institute - basically causes an abnormally large increase in heart rate. That's what resulted in Whitfield passing out for 10-20 seconds.
Her doctors at Vanderbilt prescribed medicine that did help decrease the frequency of episodes. By the second semester of her seventh-grade year, Whitfield did all of her classwork from home. Then she was home-schooled for all of her eighth-grade year.
She returned to CCS as a freshman but continued to experience fainting spells. The school eventually bought a stretcher and would have her carried to the office any time she felt dizzy or fainted.
"She wasn't even able to spend the night with friends because a lot of parents were worried she would pass out at their house," said Whitfield's father, Clay, who played on the first varsity soccer team at Soddy-Daisy High.
"We're a soccer family and Rebekah had played since she was little - and loves the sport. I think having all the attention at school was made worse by the fact that she had to stop playing sports. She missed being out there with her teammates and being a part of the game. She would go to watch the team and support them, but she usually wound up coming home in tears saying, 'That's supposed to be me out there playing.' As a parent, it was very tough to watch her go through that."
By Rebekah's junior year the family was desperate. Her cardiologist explained that a new pacemaker had been tested in a few other young people with POTS and had shown positive results. Although her parents were apprehensive about heart surgery, they elected to allow her to have the device implanted.
A two-inch scar just below her left shoulder is the only visible reminder, but the results have been immediate. After a few months of adjusting to life without the worry of passing out, Rebekah approached her parents about returning to the soccer field.
"Of course you worry, but once the doctors cleared her to play, we knew we had to let her go back out and try, because she loves the game so much," said Rebekah's mother, Heather. "When she went out for practice the first few times, either me or Clay snuck out and stood on the hill overlooking the field and kept an eye on her. We would text each other constantly about how she was doing and how she looked.
"It was nerve-racking, but all we could do was hold our breath and pray a lot."
In her first few practices back on the field, the mixture of the scorching summer sun and being out of soccer shape led Rebekah to walk to the sideline to catch her breath. But minutes later she would return.
"That's the thing that you notice about Rebekah - her determination," CCS coach Cal Sneller said. "She knew when she needed to step away to rest, but she always came right back out there. She just has a willingness to keep going, and I noticed right away how the other girls look out for her and encourage her.
"I had been around for a few of those spells she had, and it was scary. You felt bad for her and just wanted her to get better. I think just by being back out here with the team, she has proven a lot about who she is."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.