Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. They come in all colors, religions, and ages too. Usually, they come when we expect them. But sometimes, the most transformative heroes of all come when we don’t.
I walked into Camp Dream Street on a sunny day in late August 2010, completely unaware of what lay ahead of me. I knew volunteering at a camp for children with cancer and other blood disorders would be like nothing I’d ever experienced; what I didn’t know was how much it would change me. I met my campers, ten amazing eight year old girls, later that morning as they piled off the buses and I immediately connected with each of them. But I formed a special bond with one camper, Aya, over a conversation we had. Aya has sickle-cell anemia, and if the blood flow in her body is disrupted by temperature change, the sickle-shaped cells clog and cause a painful crisis. Because of this, when she swims Aya needs to get out of the pool every fifteen minutes to dry off and keep her temperature steady. Once, as Aya got out of the pool and came to sit next to me, I saw her legs beginning to lose color. I took a heating pad off my stomach and began to rub her with it. As Aya saw me doing this, she asked, “You’re broken too?” She proceeded to tell me how she’d stopped telling friends about her disease because the one friend she’d confided in called Aya “broken”.
The day I gave Aya my heating pad was approximately two months after I had been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Crohn’s Disease is a chronic autoimmune disease which inflames the lining of my digestive tract and leaves me with sometimes unbearable pain, which is why I was wearing the heating pad that day. Knowing that I was Aya’s only counselor in an analogous, albeit much less severe situation, I felt it was my job to clear up the strewed misconception she had of herself as a sick child. In the simplest words I could string together, I began to tell Aya that neither she nor I were “broken”; instead we had little parts of ourselves that were special. I affirmed that these “special parts” were not what broke us but rather what built us, and hoped Aya believed me. All the while, I was still trying to convince myself of the truth in the words coming out of my mouth.
On the last day of Camp Dream Street, there was a talent show for all of the campers. My entire bunk performed a Hannah Montana song, “Nobody’s Perfect,” received by the other kids with tremendous applause; afterwards, Aya stayed on stage. She took the microphone in hand and said, with the brightest smile on her face, “Never let anyone, your friends or yourself, call you broken. We’re not perfect, but we’re all superstars!” She looked right at me, and I smiled as a single tear streamed down my face. The months of attempts by doctors, parents, and friends to convince me that I would be okay weren’t able to do the trick, yet two short sentences from a small girl with a giant heart made everything click. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” I’d like to challenge Mr. Fitzgerald. In Arabic, the name Aya means miracle, and that’s what Aya was to me. As a sick, disadvantaged youth, Aya could have let her story play out tragically. Instead, she fought back, and while doing so inspired me more than anyone I’d ever met.
A hero doesn’t change who you are, she rather shows you who you can be. Heroes aren’t leaders because they are better, instead it’s because they make each and every person want to be better. Real heroes don’t help save the world from big, bad villains. Instead, heroes are those who help you save yourself, and maybe accidentally, maybe not, cause you to stumble upon not only solace but courage. Perhaps most importantly, heroes are the people in our lives who demonstrate to us, through both their words and their actions, why love and acceptance of oneself is of utmost importance. The pieces of my puzzle have changed because of Aya, but I’ve found that I’m not broken, I never was. The parts of who I am simply connect differently now to form an even greater picture. Aya taught me that my disease, no matter how much it affects me, will never be what defines me, and through her words I was able to resurrect an image of myself I thought I’d forever lost.
After my summer spent with Aya, I redefined my world view, and learned to love myself because of Crohn’s, or more precisely the perspective and opportunities the disease has afforded me, rather than in spite of it. Having to face this struggle so early in life has redefined how I interpret success. Rather than self-pity, rather than allowing myself to forever be doomed “the sick kid,” I began to consider life in a much larger context than the average starry eyed teen, embracing a new community and a different type of success than my peers. My gastroenterologist introduced me to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, through whom I now run marathons, coordinate charity walks, and hold fundraisers, all successes I would have never encountered had I not been diagnosed with Crohn’s. Additionally, my desire to seek advice from other adolescents facing chronic illness spurred me to create a support group of my own, where Crohn’s patients can deal with all issues tough to stomach, literally and figuratively. My disease, while at times unbearable, has opened my eyes to a world I would have otherwise never known existed, and for that I am forever grateful. Aya, a most indelible, unintentional hero, taught me that the power derived from loving every part of one’s self far outweighs the restraints that accompany a feeling of terminal inadequacy.
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. They come in all colors, religions, and ages too. Sometimes, they come when we want them. But more often than not, heroes come when we need them most, when we feel most lost and alone, when we have forgotten all reason to love ourselves. My hero came in the form of an eight year old miracle named Aya.
About the Author
Jordana, currently a high school senior, is the editor-in-chief of her school’s newspaper and founder of its Young Democrats club. A self-proclaimed book-worm, she spends much of her spare time reading, and her favorite books are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Walt Whitman’s poetry collection Leaves of Grass. She has hopes of one day pursuing a career in political journalism, as her ultimate goal is to effect change, reveal truth, and ignite passion through the written word.