Toniyah Washington grew up on the basketball court. It is her passion, but four years ago this week, Washington underwent life-saving surgery and her road to recovery provided more challenging than you could imagine.
Toniyah’s room is filled with trophies and medals.
“This one I just wanted to knock out the competition,” she boasts while pointing out a medal.
She and her dad play on the court he made for her at home now, but she recalls the past.
“My dad used to take me to the park all the time; he used to lift me up so I could throw the ball in the hoop.”
She has been the only girl on the team, and the one they all looked up to. They used to call her “Baby Shaq.”
However, Toniyah almost didn’t get to realize her potential.
At age 13, it all came to a terrifying halt when she collapsed during a practice. Light-headed, sweating and seeing lights, she was rushed to a nearby emergency room. After a series of tests, her family learned Toniyah was born with a rare heart condition, anomalous coronary artery. It is known as the silent killer.
“They told me that I couldn’t play basketball unless I got open heart surgery,” said Toniyah.
It took some convincing, but with a team led by Nicklaus Children’s Hospital’s Chief of Cardiac Surgery, Dr. Redmond Burke, Toniyah had the procedure. After a twelve-week recovery at home, she would recover physically, but she was struggling in every other way.
Her mother, Nyree Washington, remembers too well.
“It was the psychological recovery that no could have prepared us for as parents.”
The formerly sunny, well-adjusted child would write in her journal about her dark, even suicidal thoughts.
“It was a whole litany of bad feelings, how she couldn’t get back into shape, how she was just struggling on every level, physically, mentally, emotionally, what the therapist called a bottomless pit.”
Two years, through therapy, psychiatric care, talking to her surgeon during follow up visits would convince her to get back into the game.
“Just go out there and run, your heart is repaired, you are whole again,” said Dr. Burke.
Toniyah proved to be a fighter off the court as well. She hopes by sharing what she overcame that she can help others.
“It made me realize things aren’t that bad and that things will get better, and because I didn’t look at it as a curse anymore, it’s my opportunity to do better and be better.”
Now a senior at Killian Senior High School and captain of the Lady Cougars, Toniyah was honored during the final home game, surrounded by her teammates, family, and classmates, some hearing for the first time what she had endured.
Dr. Burke, who has seen her play before, was there with flowers and addressed the audience.
Finishing high school strong and soon heading to college makes her proud parents emotional.
“Seeing her confident, happy on and off the court, seeing her thrive, realize her dream on the cusp of playing college basketball, knowing all that she’s been through it’s a happy cry.”
Toniyah is looking ahead now, for her exciting new journey.