Juan Jones in his football pads. The vertical scar from his transplant surgery is visible down the middle of his chest. (Photo by Brian Freer)
Juan Jones in his football pads. The vertical scar from his transplant surgery is visible down the middle of his chest. (Photo by Brian Freer)

For VCU freshman Juan Jones, life is nothing short of a miracle

Three years ago, the 16-year-old’s heart was failing. A transplant saved his life. Now, his remarkable journey has been turned into a documentary.

By Leila Ugincius
University Public Affairs

 

At 19, Juan Jones is a happy, healthy freshman in Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Engineering. A biomedical engineering major, Jones exercises, eats well and lives “a normal life.” He’s even planning to take up football again, a sport at which he excelled in high school.

Yet Jones’ normal life is nothing short of a miracle.

As a high school sophomore, he found out that his heart had been failing for more than a year.

“I just never knew,” the New Kent-native said. “I was lifting [weights] so much, and I was in such good shape, my body was strong enough to withstand it for a long time.”

It started with a cough in the middle of football season in 2017. The cough worsened over time, worse than a smoker's cough. Doctors diagnosed the then 16-year-old with pneumonia and sent him home with an antibiotic, but his condition got worse.

“It got to the point where I was always tired. I couldn't sleep,” Jones recalled. “I couldn't feel my legs in the morning. I couldn't stand up. And I missed a lot of school. I couldn't do any work. I had trouble doing classwork because I couldn't comprehend what was going on. I was weak, tired. I couldn't eat. Even if I tried forcing myself, it would come right back out.”

After a couple of months, he went back to the hospital. Doctors X-rayed his chest and found an enlarged heart the size of a loaf of bread.

“At that time, I was wrestling varsity,” he said. “If I went to my next tournament, I would've probably died in that first round.”

That Christmas, doctors told Jones he needed a new heart. Even though he was at the top of the donor list, it was a miracle when one became available two weeks later.

“Nobody expected the heart to come that fast,” Jones said. “Words can’t describe how I was feeling when I finally got my heart. I was bawling in tears.”

While words today may not be able to capture his feelings, perhaps videos can. When Woodrow Jones received the news that his athlete son’s fatigue and cough were caused by a heart defect, he was incredulous. Filming his son’s journey helped him cope.

“I was in a dark place,” the elder Jones said, “knowing I could lose my son. That being said, I was being strong for him. Just trying to have some good times with him in the hospital, because I didn't know the time, the minute or the hour that he was going to leave me.”

Woodrow began filming Juan’s journey to have recorded memories for himself. But when Juan got out of the hospital, Woodrow wanted everybody to experience his son’s journey, he said. So he edited the footage together into a documentary, “Why Not Me?”

“I put it together because there are a lot of people that lose their hope in this world,” Woodrow said. “We wanted to show everybody that God is still alive, God is still here with us. We wanted to show people that anybody can do it. If my son could do it, you can do it.”

Information about the documentary is available online at https://juanstrongwnm.wordpress.com/.

Juan calls the film an eye-opener.

“It's something that will really make you reflect on your actions,” he said. “[The experience] strengthened my faith in Christ. … After going through this, and realizing that I can go at any moment, it was an eye-opener for me. It's made me a better man, a man of God, I guess you could say.”

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