Toeing the start line at a track event or a 5 kilometer race, she’s got a competitive streak as tough as the carbon fiber in her prosthetic running leg.
Prairie Point seventh grader Jessica Heims is a natural athlete – a member of her middle school cross-country and track teams and a triathlete.
She’s also royalty, chosen as the Queen for this year’s Iowa Shrine Bowl All-Star Football Game in Ames. With the help of the Shriners Hospitals for Children, she has overcome steep odds to become a competitor in the sports she loves.
It hasn’t been easy, even in a family that has confronted her disability with a generous measure of humor and optimism.
Jessica was born with a deformed right leg due to a rare birth defect in which the amniotic bands in the mother’s uterus break and wrap around the fetus.
“A high percentage of babies with amniotic banding do not survive because the bands wrap around major body parts such as their head or abdomen,” explains her mother. In Jessica’s case, the bands wrapped around and interrupted the growth of her right leg, so that she was born with a shriveled limb and a tiny partial foot.
Because her deformed foot consisted entirely of cartilage and lacked circulation, it was prone to slow-healing wounds and could not support her when she tried to walk. After consulting with several specialists, Jessica’s parents, Glen and Kris, made the wrenching decision to have her foot amputated when she was a year old.
Not long after, she was fitted with her first walking prosthesis. “She was walking within two hours of getting her first leg,” says Kris. “We knew immediately we had made the right decision.”
The Heims were just beginning to navigate the challenging world of prosthetics and disability when they met local Shriners at a community event. After learning about the Shriners Hospitals for Children, they contacted the hospital in Minneapolis, where they found both pediatric specialists and financial assistance for the considerable expenses not
covered by their insurance.
In an ironic twist of fate, the milestone day when the Heims traveled to the Twin Cities Shriners Hospital for the first time with 3-year-old Jessica was one of the most tragic days in U.S. history – Sept. 11, 2001. In the years since, Kris says, the tremendous loss of limbs by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to significant advances in prosthetic technology, with benefits trickling down to children like Jessica.
At the Heims home, there was never room for pity. Jessica and her sisters, Beth and Nicole, christened her deformed leg “stumpy” as soon as she was old enough to realize it was different.
“I couldn’t ask for a better big sister for Jessica,” says Kris. “Beth is amazing. She was always around to answer the questions on the playground and protect her.”
Currently a junior on the Prairie High track team, Beth was also Jessica’s inspiration for running.
“I tried softball and basketball and soccer, but I never liked them very much,” Jessica says. “I don’t have that coordination. My older sister ran and my mom started running, so my younger sister and I started too. I just loved running the mile at school.”
At age 10, she joined the Cedar Rapids Track Club, overcoming her mother’s fears about what she might encounter there, and began participating in local track meets.
“I wasn’t very good at all,” Jessica laughs. “But I still loved it. I like the feeling of being able to do something.” At that point, she was running with a prosthetic walking leg anchored to a seven-pound artificial foot.
Two years ago, through the Shriners, she got her first running leg, called a Cheetah Blade – a curved, carbon fiber prosthetic foot that allows disabled athletes to approximate a more normal running gait.
Since then she has competed in more than a dozen 5k races, twice winning her age group. She has a personal best time of 26:36.
This past fall, Jessica joined the Prairie Point cross country team, but injuries sidelined her as she struggled with the uneven terrain and a growth spurt that required adjusting to a new prosthesis.
Even though she couldn’t compete in the state middle school cross country meet, she went along to cheer on her team, she says. In a show of solidarity, her teammates all painted their legs a dark orange – with spots – to match her Cheetah Blade.
Striving to improve
Injuries notwithstanding, Jessica joined the track team this spring. Because stopping and starting abruptly are difficult for her, she prefers longer distances such as the 1500, where she has a personal best of 6:49.
“I’ve gotten better,” she says.
“If she wants to do something, we let her do it,” Kris says. “But it’s been a lot harder than we thought. Lots of trial and error. She can’t do all the workouts. She can’t do warm-ups in the gym, she can’t do push-ups, and she tends to get injured because on a tight left turn she has to swing her leg out,” causing recurring patellar tendinitis in her right knee.
None of it deters her, says Kris. “Even with her injuries and trying to figure out her running leg, she never gives up.”
To help her body adapt to her challenges, Jessica has been working with a therapist to strengthen her quad and hamstring muscles and improve her running mechanics.
“She has come a long way,” says Judy Jicinsky, her physical therapist at Performance Therapies. “She’s so young and so athletic. She’s kind of quiet until you get to know her, but she’s very determined and competitive, very fun. She doesn’t just want to run, she wants to win, and she has definitely done better than I thought she could.”
When she was 11, Jessica’s prosthetist at the Shriners Hospital sparked her interest in a new activity – triathlons.
“Matt from Shriners came down and did the Pigman,” she recounts. “My family was volunteering, and I thought it was awesome that you could do three sports in one.” While there she met representatives from the Challenged Athlete Foundation, an organization that provides opportunities for people with physical disabilities, and was encouraged to apply for a grant to participate in a triathlon relay in San Diego.
She won the grant and was off to San Diego with her mom to participate in the running portion of a half-Ironman triathlon. She was supposed to run four miles – turning around at the bottom of a big hill – but instead decided to keep going, running a total of nine miles.
She considers it her greatest athletic accomplishment – so far. “I never thought I could do that,” she says. She has since done all three legs of two kids’ triathlons, and she is training for this year’s sprint Pigman. “I want to do more triathlons, and I want to get into the Paralympics,” she says.
Proving them wrong
Last year, Jessica wrote an essay for the state’s Write Women Back into History contest, describing one of her heroes, Amy Palermo-Winters, who lost her leg in a motorcycle accident and went on to become the first amputee to qualify for a U.S. national track and field team. Her essay won the sixth and seventh grade competition, and she went to Des Moines to meet Governor Branstad and other notables.
In July, she’ll lead the Shrine Bowl parade and speak at the annual banquet. “I’m not really much of a loud person and I don’t usually talk in front of people, but I’m working on it,” she says. “I’m going to tell them that you can do anything, and everyone should be able to get the chance.”
A fitting ambassador for people with disabilities, she says she has never been discouraged by doubts or teasing from other kids.
“Kids have made fun of my leg,” she says. “But I just ignore them. It’s normal for me, but it’s not normal for them. They just don’t understand it.”
It doesn’t bother her, she says, but it does motivate her.
“At the start of a race I see people staring and I know they’re thinking, ‘She shouldn’t be doing this.’ Half the reason I do this stuff is to prove them wrong. I like being able to beat them.”
|< Prev||Next >|