ARNOLD, Md. — Jarren Jasper paused his game of Madden after hearing the telephone ring in the kitchen. Sitting on an oversize, navy blue recliner in the family room, the 14-year old looked over his left shoulder at his mother, Donna Jasper, who had the phone cradled in her neck.
Is this it?
She waved him off with her hand and shook her head, signaling, “No, this isn’t it,” before disappearing into the adjacent dining room.
“Darn it,” Jarren whispered.
Jarren, the youngest of Ivin and Donna Jasper’s three children, is waiting for a heart transplant. Hidden underneath his Navy hoodie is a battery-powered device which connects to a surgically implanted mechanical pump — a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) — which works to pump blood to his heart. The LVAD is keeping him alive as he and his family wait for a life-saving phone call.
The lanky, baby-faced teenager has a strong inner spirit and a bottomless cup of courage that even his mother draws strength from, but physically, Jarren is a shell of the athlete he once was and still aspires to be. At 5-foot-11, 113 pounds, Jarren looks frail and tired, but not discouraged. He’s positive he will get the transplant he’s waiting for. While he can continue to live with the LVAD for months or even years, no child should be sustained by batteries for even one minute.
“I expected just to go back to my normal life,” he said, quietly.
Jarren was born into a family of athletes. His father, Ivin, is the offensive coordinator at Navy. Life-size images of Jarren and his siblings — his sister Dallas and brother Jaylen — playing volleyball, basketball and football are plastered all over the walls of the Jaspers’ home. Jarren was supposed to be a freshman quarterback this year at Broadneck High School in Annapolis, Maryland. He spent his summer preparing for football camp, just like his father at Navy.
Instead, he spent an afternoon in late October resting and playing on his PlayStation. A small sign on the TV stand reads “all you need is love … and football.” Prescription bottles litter the counter by the kitchen sink, next to a three-ring binder with a chart made by Jarren’s nurses to help Donna keep track of his different medications. Jarren’s LVAD can’t get wet, so even taking a shower is a painstaking process.
“I’m a 24-hour-a-day home-care nurse,” Donna said, “but that’s my job anyway because I’m his mom. Sometimes I feel bad because it takes away from my other two kids and Ivin because all of my time and energy is focused on him, but he’s the one who needs me right now.”
A large calendar on the wall in the kitchen has little red hearts drawn around the words “JARREN HOME” on Oct. 5, the emotional day he came home from a two-month stay in the hospital. Now, Jarren and his family are praying for the call to return to the hospital. Donna and Ivin moved a queen-size mattress into their bedroom so Jarren could sleep beside them. The cell phones next to their nightstands are always on and the ringer volume is turned up as loud as it can go.
“The phone rings at 3 a.m. and I jump, and it’s a wrong number,” Donna said. “I used to turn it off when I go to bed at night. I can’t do that anymore.”
Once the Jaspers receive a call that a heart transplant is available for Jarren, they have a two-hour window to get to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The donated organ has to be within a 1,200-mile radius — or no more than a two-hour plane ride — and Jarren has to be prepped and ready for surgery by the time it arrives.
“I’m a 24-hour-a-day home-care nurse, but that’s my job anyway because I’m his mom. Sometimes I feel bad because it takes away from my other two kids and Ivin because all of my time and energy is focused on him, but he’s the one who needs me right now.”
No bags are packed. All Donna needs, she said, is her purse.
“If they call me, I don’t care what we’re doing. I don’t even have to have clothes,” she said. “I’m just going straight to the hospital.”
“I have the Batmobile ready,” Ivin said.
Until then, hope and desperation skyrocket with every telephone ring.
No family can ever steel itself for the blow of almost losing a child, and the Jaspers are still searching for answers as to how, exactly, it came to this. It began June 24, after Jarren underwent a routine physical to play high school football. Dallas, the eldest of the three Jasper children, was home from college and took him to the appointment. Dallas remembers the doctor checking Jarren’s eyes, looking down his throat and pulling out the stethoscope to listen to his heart.
“She kind of made a face, and she was like, ‘Well that doesn’t sound good,'” Dallas said. “I was like, ‘Excuse me?'”
Dallas, confused and in tears, texted her father, who was in a staff meeting with Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo.
“It was awful, just looking at him being so scared, and ‘I can’t play football?'” Dallas said. “He’s a freshman. That’s what he had talked about all summer, was football tryouts. He’d been going to the workouts and everything. For him to be told ‘No, sorry, we don’t know what’s up right now, you can’t do anything physical,’ just broke his heart. And it broke my heart. I left there thinking I hope whatever this is, is something that can just go away.”
Instead, it got worse. Jarren was ultimately diagnosed with an abnormally fast heartbeat. On Aug. 4, he underwent an ablation operation to correct it. Around 2 p.m. that day, Ivin received a phone call from Donna, who said, “Something happened.” He immediately got in his car and drove to the hospital, in tears by the time he found his wife.
“She said the procedure was almost done and — and his heart stopped,” Ivin said. “I’m like, what?”
During the operation, Jarren’s heart swelled and he went into cardiac arrest. Doctors revived him on the operation table, but his heart was permanently damaged. For 11 days, he was on life-support.
“I thought he was going to die,” Donna said.
“I wanted to be in that spot so bad,” Ivin said. “I would trade in a heartbeat. But obviously you can’t, and just, there’s nothing you can do for your child, and this is the worst feeling — the worst feeling — there’s nothing you can do for him.”
Dallas stayed at her brother’s bedside rather than return to college. Jarren was unable to speak, but she knew he could hear her. As the days went by, she would play him their favorite NAV and Lil Uzi Vert songs, and he’d bob his head to “Broccoli” by D.R.A.M. She scolded Jarren when he tried to dab, and he made a face pretending to be grossed out when she kissed him on the cheek, but it all made them both smile.
“They said after [the operation] was done he would’ve been fine and we would’ve been walking out of there and he would’ve been completely fine,” Dallas said. “The exact opposite happened. He was in the ICU. That’s the last place you want to be. Just like that, like a snap of my fingers, everything has changed. From that day on we realized things were never going to be the same.”
Also by the Jasper family’s side were Niumatalolo and his wife Barbara. The two families have known each since Ivin was a player at Hawaii and Niumatalolo was a graduate assistant. Donna calls Barbara her “older sister.” Their children grew up together and call each other cousins.
“We all hear the horrible side effects that never happen,” said Barbara, who was on vacation in Honolulu at the time of Jarren’s operation. “But then it happened. I was trying to grasp just how grave the situation was, being that far away. My husband went up right away and saw Jarren and just walked in the room and wept. He sobbed and sobbed. He got out of there and called me and said, ‘You’ve got to come home.'”
She changed her ticket immediately.
“My whole goal was Donna,” she said. “My job is her. Her job is Jarren. No one can take care of him like mom, and that’s what he’s going to want. When I got in there I knew I couldn’t cry. I had to be strong for her. I had to make this OK. She needed that from me.”
Barbara also made sure Donna was eating right and brought treats for the hospital staff with handwritten notes, “From Jarren Jasper, thank you for the great care,” with his room number on them. There were times when Donna would step out of the room and say, “Auntie Barbara will you sit by Jarren?”
“I’d sit there by him,” she said. “He might be playing a game, he might be falling asleep, he might be sedated. Whatever it was, I’d just touch him and say ‘I’m here, you’re not alone, Mommy is over here, and this is Auntie Barbara, nothing will happen to you while I’m by this bed.'”
Ivin has coached at Navy for 18 years; Niumatalolo for 19. When Ivin learned that Jarren’s condition was dire, Niumatalolo told him to take the entire season off.
“I wasn’t even thinking football,” Niumatalolo said. “I was thinking Jarren. You just take care of your son. We were ready for whatever that entailed.”
Ivin did not take a leave of absence but was away from the team a lot in August. If his office door was shut, Niumatalolo knew where he was. As the season got closer, and it became clear that Jarren’s condition was more stable, Ivin went back to work regularly.
“Donna can’t leave Jarren’s side, and Ivin comes to see [Jarren] and love him up, and oh, he loves it when Daddy comes,” Barbara said. “But Ivin also emotionally and mentally needed to go to work. He needed to have that little bit of a distraction. Everybody handles stress and trauma differently. … And it was good for Jarren and Donna because he was fresh when he came in every day. He could take over, and it was really good. He was able to stay real positive and keep upbeat and keep Donna up. I don’t know if he could’ve done that had he been sitting bedside for hours every day and not bringing in hope.”
In the quarterbacks meeting room, he also brought in his cell phone. Ivin and his players sit at the front, his cell phone on a desk in the back.
“Whenever we heard it ring, we’d just look at each other and pause,” quarterback Zach Abey said. “… We were all antsy for the call, too. He knew it could be at any moment.”
“When the time comes, when the heart comes, we will drop everything and I will be there,” Barbara said. “I just pray I’m not on an away trip. But if Ivin’s on an away trip, we’re both going to be jumping on a flight, so it doesn’t matter. I’ll be there, too, so we’ll just jump on a flight and go.”
The Jaspers remain hopeful, and they are willing to wait, knowing that even the call that a heart is available is only the first step in the process. One week after Jarren had his LVAD implanted, the family was told there was a match. But after undergoing a series of tests, doctors were concerned Jarren wasn’t strong enough yet to undergo the operation. He had dropped to under 100 pounds at the time and his body was still acclimating to the LVAD.
They also understand what their good fortune in finding a match for Jarren would mean for another family.
“The reality of getting a heart means that someone else has lost their life,” Ivin said. “It’s just not a good feeling, and for us to have the perfect heart for him will need to be someone, you know, that’s his build, his age and everything, and that’s another family going through the worst feeling ever. So, I just try not to think about it that way.”
Instead, the Jaspers have decided to simply ask for a miracle.
“Phrasing it that way, it just helps,” Ivin said, “because again, we’re asking the Lord to send us a miracle.”
Donna is often asked how she and her family are coping. She has been approached by strangers while shopping at Target. She used to say, “Life sucks. It’s hell.”
“The reality of getting a heart means that someone else has lost their life. It’s just not a good feeling, and for us to have the perfect heart for him will need to be someone, you know, that’s his build, his age and everything, and that’s another family going through the worst feeling ever. So, I just try not to think about it that way.”
“Life doesn’t suck,” she said. “My son’s here. I may have to plug him into a wall [at] night, but he’s here, and he’s alive. That’s all that matters.”
Jarren is at the top of the list for a heart transplant, and Ivin faces the most difficult coaching job of his life — working with his son. He massages Jarren’s feet, trying to get the tendons to loosen up because his muscles have atrophied, causing pain in his feet, which makes it difficult to walk.
“I told him,” Ivin said. “I said, ‘You know, I’ve been coaching for a very, very long time, but I’ve been fortunate to coach some good players and to coach kids who people didn’t expect much from and help those kids play well, but my best coaching job is going to be with you, because I’m going to get you back to where you were as best I can.”
In the meantime, all the Jaspers can do is wait.
“I know it will happen sooner or later,” Jarren said. “That’s why I don’t really try to think about it. It’s just a matter of time.”
“[The heart] will come,” Donna agreed, “but it has to be the perfect one, and that’s what we’re waiting for.”
And one phone call they’ll never forget.