By Ms. Elyssa Vondra (Jackson)May 2, 2019
Heart monitors beep, doctors and nurses rush in, a mom goes into shock and her newborn baby the size of a cell phone is medevacked out.
Fast forward 17 years, and that baby, Leah Pierre, has grown into a since-healthy young adult who aspires to someday become a doctor specializing in cardiology who works on a military base.
"Everyone has their moments when they can't handle kids," Pierre said, "but I really want to help kids, especially who have the same problem as me."
Pierre was born with coarctation, or narrowing, of the aorta. The condition prevented her from getting sufficient nutrients in utero.
Despite going full term, she was just 4 pounds, 5 ounces at birth.
After a surgery, she bounced back fast, becoming a very healthy baby, according to her mom, Sharon Brown-DraperPierre.
"The doctor loved coming to see her last (during his daily rounds) because she was just a fighter and she made his day," she said.
From the time Pierre could talk, she wanted to follow in her mom's footsteps and become a Soldier.
Brown-DraperPierre, originally of the Caribbean country Trinidad and Tobago, joined the Army after immigrating to the U.S. Virgin Islands. At the time, she didn't realize exactly what she was getting herself into.
"I was just walking in the plaza, and I saw all these guys in uniform," Brown-DraperPierre said.
She didn't know it then, but they were recruiters for the Marines, the Air Force and the Army.
With her love of the annual Trinidad independence parades in mind, Brown-DraperPierre asked if these mystery men in uniform got to march in parades.
They told her they indeed did and that if she joined the military, she would get to take part in them, too.
"Poor little old me just went and signed the dotted line … so I could be in all the parades," she said.
That kicked off her two decade-long Army career, ended by her later-in-life lupus diagnosis in 2005, when she retired at Fort Jackson.
Doctors told her she would never be able to have kids, so Pierre was a pleasant surprise, Brown-DraperPierre said, but there were complications.
Pierre's heart condition will prevent her from being in the military.
"I wanted to (join the Army)," Pierre said, "(but) because of my heart murmur, I couldn't enlist."
She still hopes to find a way to work on a military installation someday, she said, and has already been doing that in the realm of community service for the past six years, donating hundreds of hours on-post and in the surrounding region.
"Most people want to work for money," said Pierre, a lifelong Columbia resident and Ridgeview High School student. "With volunteering, you may not know, but it gives you the work ethic … that feel of working at an actual job."
Pierre won Volunteer of the Year in the youth category, donating roughly 80 hours of her time every month throughout 2018.
She primarily volunteers with the VolunTEENS, the American Red Cross volunteer group that her mom is the parent lead/youth chair of.
"I believe in always occupying your time wisely," Brown-DraperPierre said. "I don't like being in front of TVs. I don't want (kids) with all the knobs in their ears." That got the Family started with the organization.
Pierre joined the VolunTEENS just like her older brother had before her.
Pierre has been president of the VolunTEENS for the last two-and-a-half years, serving as a member since 2013.
"You probably won't enjoy waking up early on a Saturday morning … going to a meeting right after school and getting home late to do homework … it will be a bit painful, but it's not going to hurt," Pierre said. "I've had times when I've had tons of homework, projects even, or when I wasn't feeling good and I wanted to sleep in, but I had to go to the meetings, and then I had to wake up early for events, but it will all work out."