For Mahdi Islam, a fourth-grader at Bowling Green Elementary School, the start of the school year meant a chance to run on the playground with his friends instead of watching them from a wheelchair. It meant laughing and shouting instead of needing air from an oxygen tank.
Mahdi was born with Ebstein anomaly, a heart defect in which one ventricle doesn’t work properly, causing blood to leak backward into the atrium instead of pumping forward. In the past three years he has undergone six surgeries, and had a heart transplant in April.
“It was very hard for him,” said his father, Saidul Islam, an officer in the New York City Police Department. “He knew he was sick and he couldn’t play with his friends. But now he feels like a real child.”
Mahdi, who is 8, went back to school on Sept. 4, and his classmates greeted him with “Welcome Back!” signs and shook pompoms and noisemakers to celebrate his recovery. A group of school staff members and district officials walked him into the building, followed by a number of reporters. “Look, Mahdi, you have your own paparazzi,” Bowling Green Principal Maria Ciarametaro said.
When Mahdi entered his new classroom, his friends Logan Morales, Avisha Panicker and Jayden Morkunas rushed over and hugged him. Allison Brafman, his fourth-grade teacher, showed him around the classroom and then to his desk next to Logan, where the two started chatting and joking. “I missed you,” Logan said.
“I missed you, too,” Mahdi replied.
Last year his classmates were asking about his condition and what would happen to him, Ciarametaro recalled. “We had some serious discussions with the children,” she said, adding, however, that she and his teachers kept their explanations simple enough for the kids to understand.
Mahdi appeared healthy the first six years of his life, his father said. Then, in 2016, he had the first of six unsuccessful open-heart operations. He started having trouble walking, talking and breathing. He would feel extremely fatigued and was short of breath, and his lips often turned blue.
In January, he could barely walk, and would get around school in a wheelchair and breathe with the help of an oxygen tank. In March, his doctors told his parents that he needed a heart transplant to survive.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Christine Reiman, his third-grade teacher. “But everybody came together, and we just fell in love with him. We did whatever we could to help him and his family . . . I think of him as my own kid.”
After a heart donor was found, Mahdi had the transplant in April at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in Manhattan. On April 17, Bowling Green celebrated Superhero Day, when students dressed like their favorite superheroes and donated a dollar to the Islam family, raising $4,000. Then Reiman used Facetime to call Mahdi so he could see his classmates.
“He was so grateful, and so wonderful,” Ciarametaro said. “Whenever he’d see us, he was overcome with emotion.”
Mahdi is examined by a doctor once a month, and will be on heart medication for the rest of his life. But now his physical activity is unrestricted. “The doctors told us not to stop him,” his father said. Just a couple of weeks ago, on vacation in Montreal, he and his family hiked four miles.
When Mahdi was in the hospital, he kept talking about going back to school. “He was always so happy,” said his mother, Suhenez. “He knew there was a problem, but he kept saying, ‘It’s OK, Mommy. One day I’ll be like a normal kid.’ And that wish finally came true.”