CANA, Va. — It was graduation day for many young people across the area Saturday, but a different kind of graduation was happening in Cana: Samantha Riggs, after 140 days spent in the hospital in Durham, N.C., and three weeks in the Ronald McDonald House, had a graduation of her own — from hospital patient to warrior princess Sam, with a new, healthy heart, ready to return home.
After she received her heart transplant last month, Samantha was cleared to return home and she arrived Saturday, but not before she was driven through her town of Cana, waving from the window of an SUV limousine, to hundreds of people who lined the roads with balloons and signs, welcoming her home.
Her Girl Scout troop gathered on the street in front of her home, along with family and friends. There were tears and there was laughter in the air, and before Samantha and her family arrived, everyone began feeling the excitement when they heard cheers and a horn blowing in the distance, one that sounded like it was moving closer.
In the distance, the limo appeared around the corner, and everyone began shouting, “She’s here, she’s here” as Samantha was spotted, hanging out the widow, laughing and spraying the Girl Scout troop with silly string.
Samantha later said she felt like she “was in a parade.” Samantha’s grandmother, Christine Riggs, said, “As much as she’s been through, she deserves to feel like a celebrity.”
As soon as Samantha pulled in the driveway, she was embraced by family members who were overjoyed to see her, then she spent time with her friends in the scout troop, walking around her yard and catching up after not seeing them since December.
Christine and Ronnie Riggs, Samantha’s grandparents and father Tony’s parents, waited eagerly for the limo to drive up. They were looking after Samantha’s little sister, Farrah, who said she was “happy” about her sister coming home.
Christine Riggs said they had been waiting for this day for a long time. “We all feel really blessed and fortunate. We have been waiting for this day for a long time…support has been pouring in from everywhere and we are so thankful.”
Samantha’s Girl Scout troop spent many hours decorating Samantha’s room with splash paint on the walls, which was Samantha’s choice. The girl scouts also created a peace sign wall decoration, made from their handprints.
As Samantha entered her bedroom, the Girl Scouts gathered around the window to peer in, excited to see Samantha enjoying their hard work.
Samantha’s newly remodeled bedroom also had a surprise sitting on the dresser — a St. Paul School yearbook, signed by all her friends. She sat down on her bed with her grandparents to look at the yearbook, in her own bedroom, something she has not been able to do since before Christmas.
An anonymous donor made the decorating possible, in fact, Samantha’s entire home was much different than when she saw it last: new floors were installed, new paint on the walls, and the house underwent a major cleaning. Samantha’s father, Tony, said the redecoration and new floors were paid for entirely by donations, and the floors were installed for free by Adam and Steven at New Image Flooring.
Samantha’s home is now safer and healthier for her because she is still rebuilding her immune system, Tony explained.
Samantha said she loves her new room and admitted that it felt really wonderful to finally be home. Almost immediately upon walking into her bedroom, she plopped straight onto the bed and said one of the things she missed the most about home was sleeping in her own bed.
The return home was “a long time coming,” but both Tony and mother Randi acknowledged that it was bittersweet.
“People we got to know while we were at the hospital, we didn’t meet anyone we didn’t like. The doctors, nurses, secretaries, everyone, you get to know them on a first-name basis. We were in one unit for 140 days, so we really got to know them personally,” Tony explained.
Samantha will still travel to Durham once a week for treatment, but that will begin to taper off, and after one year of good health, she will not have to go back to the hospital for regular visits.
Tony said Samantha kept up with her school work by being enrolled in Durham County Schools, and she was ready for fifth grade after receiving a straight-A report card. “Her lessons were intense…she did really good because she didn’t want to fall behind.”
Samantha said she liked having a private teacher, but said school was much different on her own, because she really missed being with all her friends at St. Paul School.
She said she was looking forward to “hanging around here and being with my family” after being in a whirlwind since December. Samantha said she had both “good days and bad days” while she was in the hospital, but admitted that she will miss many of the people she met there, but not Bertha, her Berlin heart which kept her heart pumping until she received her heart transplant.
Tony said they were going to stay close to home for a while, but he was hopeful they may be able to fulfill Samantha’s request for a beach trip sometime in the future.
For now, Tony said Samantha had to stay away from large crowds, and anywhere she may potentially be exposed to germs. She is still taking around 14 daily medications, some several times a day, but they will eventually be reduced down to her two essential anti-ejection drugs and a multi-vitamin.
Tony said he felt very lucky to work for a supportive company, NCFI, who allowed him to take time off work to be with his family while Samantha was in the hospital. “All I had to do was pay my insurance, but my co-workers paid for that every time,” Tony humbly explained. “Even now, the owner calls this a humanitarian case, and said for me to settle in for a while before I go back.” Randi works as a nurse at Northern Hospital of Surry County, who also allowed her time off to be with Samantha while she was in the hospital.
Community support kept the family going, and allowed them to stay with Samantha while she was in the hospital. Samantha’s little sister, Farrah, was even given free day care at Little Treasures in Cana.
“We didn’t ask for anything,” said Tony, “but help came from everywhere. We are still seeing so much support pouring in, with big events and small ones, any little bit is a blessing. We want to thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts.”
Tony and Randi both said they appreciate small-town living more than ever, and look forward to a lazy, boring summer. “We don’t ever want to leave again, we want to be boring for a while now,” said Toni, jokingly.
Reach Jessica Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1933.