Three special students inspire classmates to learn about heart health

ARLINGTON -- For students at Mary Moore Elementary School, it was the most heartfelt of messages.

As the clocked ticked toward the start of spring break Friday afternoon, children and teachers in red shirts gathered in the cafeteria to honor three classmates who have faced serious heart problems.

First came waves of students across the stage displaying their jump-rope skills to the beat of cardio workout music. Next, the three honorees -- the school's "Heart Heroes," Principal Vivian Johnson calls them -- read their personal stories.

Second-grader Matthew Tupa underwent a surgical procedure when he was just a day old and had valve replacement surgery at age 3. He will probably face another as a teenager.

Victoria Manterola, 11, had a tiny hole in her heart that caused a murmur, but it didn't become a problem until fall, when a staph infection attacked the area.

Karly Beel, 8, has overcome the steepest odds, having been born with only two chambers in her heart, along with other medical issues.

Their survival tales are helping teach their classmates the importance of heart health, and the event Friday was sponsored by the American Heart Association to cement that message.

"This has been a really good learning experience," said Matthew's mom, Emily Tupa, emergency department nursing manager at Medical Center of Arlington. "It's really been neat to watch the evolution of their understanding."

Mayor Robert Cluck, a physician who has pushed citywide CPR training and leads a contest each summer designed to keep children active, reminded the students to eat right and exercise. He also presented the three students with American Heart Association certificates.

"The American Heart Association is your friend and my friend," Cluck, a board member for the Tarrant County chapter, told the gathering. He explained to the students that the organization raises money for research and provides financial assistance to heart patients who need it.

"Every time you see somebody wearing red, I want you to think about a friend who has had something wrong with their heart and gotten better, like your three special friends," he said.

Before the assembly at the southwest Arlington school, the trio's parents told the Star-Telegram what the event meant to them.

Matthew, a big, confident second-grader who plays baseball, might be one of the last students at Moore Elementary who anybody would guess has a heart defect. Until the subject came up recently, in fact, many of his friends didn't know about his condition.

"They didn't believe him till he lifted up his shirt and showed his scar," Tupa said.

Victoria's parents said her heart murmur was never a cause for worry. Not long ago the tall, reserved sixth-grader could run a mile in less than seven minutes.

In late October, however, she became seriously ill and was hospitalized. After three days of tests, doctors determined that her heart was infected. She underwent surgery within hours.

"I missed Halloween, spent my Thanksgiving getting medications pumped into me and almost missed Christmas because of makeup work," she told the audience.

Now she's back to running, finishing a mile race in just over eight minutes recently. She still has the central line and pump that her parents used to send antibiotics to her heart after she came home from the hospital.

"She talks about it all the time," said her mom, Sharon Manterola, the Grand Prairie school district's executive director of instructional media and technology. "She's pretty proud of it."

Of the three students, Karly, a tiny first-grader with a shy smile, has traveled the bumpiest road. She was born with only two heart chambers as well as spina bifida. Problems with her pulmonary arteries caused her to struggle with low oxygen absorption for her first few years, but it's better now.

Eventually, she'll need a new heart, said her mom, Molly Beel, an emergency room nurse at Baylor All-Saints Medical Center in Fort Worth. Until then, she'll live as normally as she can.

"She can run until she can't," Beel said. "She rides her bike. ... At this point, she's already a miracle."

At the end of the assembly, students and teachers formed a big red heart, symbolic in more ways than one.

Patrick M. Walker, 817-390-7423

Twitter: @patrickmwalker1