Today, Nikera Simpson is a typical, active 16-year-old who enjoys running track, her studies and giving back to the community. Rewind to 2000, Nikera had to undergo open heart surgery as a sixth month old baby due to Tetralogy of Fallot, a heart condition where there is significant narrowing in one of the heart valves. In 2010, at the age of 10, Nikera’s cardiologist noticed her heart was working harder than it should. Nikera would have her second open heart surgery in June of 2011.
Following surgery and testing, doctors noticed there were some tweaks to be made, requiring another surgery to be performed, only this time the heart would not be stopped.
During the surgery, the hole in Nikera’s heart leaked air in causing a blood clot and subsequently a stroke. Nikera experienced paralysis, aphasia and couldn’t control her bodily functions. Her family learned of nerve damage in her left foot and right hand, signaling a mini-stroke that had affected both sides of her brain. Intensive physical rehabilitation would be necessary to return to an independent life.
Fourth of July weekend, Nikera’s family met with a case manager from Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital. Nikera would be participating in inpatient rehabilitation including physical, speech and occupational therapy five days a week and three hours a day. Although therapy was hard work, therapists made recovery fun by incorporating music therapy, board games and the Wii. Nikera rebounded from not being able to walk or talk, to scooting herself to the bathroom, depending on her wheelchair less and feeding herself with her right hand. She was able to speak in simple sentences and granted a home pass to go visit loved ones before finishing out her recovery at the hospital.
Nikera was self-motivated and with the help of her therapy team, pushed her progress to the point she no longer needed a wheelchair and could walk with a cane. She could groom herself and made brownies with her occupational therapist.
In August of 2011, Nikera was released to go home with a home services plan in place to continue her progression. As the family exited the hospital, staff members lined the hallways and applauded Nikera’s success. Over the next year, she continued to heal and relearn skills.
In the fall of 2013, Nikera decided to pursue cross country running, an extracurricular activity that would prove difficult for her heart. After completing a stress test and demonstrating her heart could self-regulate to a resting rate, Nikera was approved to run for her school’s team.
Since then, Nikera has taken all honors and Advanced Placement classes in high school, played in the marching band and used her larger than life heart to volunteer with the Best Buddies program for people with intellectual developmental disabilities, among other clubs.
“When I share her testimony, people are amazed,” said Nikera’s mom, Stacey Yates. “They always do a double take like, you’re kidding, not her. I proudly nod my head and reply, yes, yes her.”