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Brave little girl inspires her equally brave mother

Christina Vega's first birthday party Saturday afternoon will include all of the trimmings. Cake and ice cream and presents. Balloons and 60 to 70 guests. Maybe some of those goofy little cone-shaped party hats.

"We're celebrating life," grandma Terry Reynolds said.

"That's what birthday parties are for," said Corinne Reynolds, Christina's mom.

Life, so fleeting and precious. Because barring an absolute miracle, Christina won't live to celebrate another.

She was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which means the left side of her heart is underdeveloped. She's missing a ventricle, and her heart cannot pump enough blood to supply the oxygen her body needs.

Some day, likely within the next few months, Christina will die quietly in her sleep, her mom said.

In the meantime, Corinne Reynolds, 25, marvels in her daughter's exuberance and toughness. She rejoices in the way her son, Isaiah, adores his baby sister.

"Her heart broke," Isaiah explained, as only an astute 3½-year-old can. "They fixed it and put Band-Aids inside it."

If only it were that simple.

A couple of decades ago, infants with this syndrome wouldn't last a month. Now a series of three operations can give them a fighting chance to live at least five years, with many living much longer. Sadly, Christina — a smiling, happy child despite a cumbersome feeding tube in her belly and an oxygen hose tucked into her nostrils — won't be one of them.

Born July 10, 2008, she had her first two surgeries at University of California at San Francisco Medical Center within her first four months. In March, her heart stopped while doctors were implanting the feeding tube. Though they revived her, she suffered brain injuries and lost her vision, Corinne Reynolds said.

Because of the combined heart and brain damage, Christina no longer is a candidate for the third surgery, her mother said. Also, because of lingering effects of a respiratory virus Christina got in December, doctors told Reynolds that her baby would have only a 10 percent chance of surviving another heart surgery.

"They offered to pull the feeding tube and medicate her so that she'd feel no pain, and let her go," Reynolds said. "We said, 'Hell, no!' and brought her home."

For two weeks after returning home to Modesto, Christina screamed at the slightest touch or agitation. Her doctor prescribed a calming drug. Eventually, the pain subsided and she no longer needs the medication.

Her brain activity has improved, and she now can say a few words, nod "yes" and shake her head "no."

"Her brain's made a remarkable recovery," Corinne said. "But her heart — there's nothing more they can do."

Nothing more than pray for a miracle and enjoy her while they can.

The heart problems could be genetic. Isaiah was born with two small holes in his heart that healed themselves. And their cousin was born with a heart defect. That child, like Isaiah, is doing well.

Christina has survived this long against great odds.

"The baby — she's just resilient," said family friend Rhonda, who didn't want her last name used because she deals with probationers and parolees. She'll hold the birthday party Saturday.

"(Christina's) been on her way out since she was born, yet she keeps coming back and kicking back," Rhonda said.

"(Doctors) said she would get pneumonia, that that is what would kill her," Reynolds said. "But she's already had that, and she's still here."

Toughness comes from mom

Christina's resiliency comes from Reynolds, who spent 13 months in prison on a drug conviction.

"I had my wild-child days," she said.

She dropped out of school after eighth grade, falling in with the wrong crowd and running the streets when she should have been in high school. She said her experience in the women's prison at Chowchilla became the wake-up call that changed her life. She quit using drugs.

"I've been clean for six years," she said proudly. "When I got out, I never looked back. I got rid of my bad friends. I got a job."

She began attending the Celebration Center, a Pentecostal church in Modesto.

"God and prayer are what's gotten her through this," Terry Reynolds said. Corinne Reynolds and her children live with her mom, who works to support them. Corinne Reynolds had to quit her job managing a pizza parlor to be home 24-7 with Christina.

Corinne Reynolds and Steve Vega, 33, her children's father, have split up. But he's remained a part of their lives as have his other children from a previous relationship, 14-year-old Steven Vega III and 8-year-old Angel.

Friend Rhonda was never Corinne Reynolds' drug counselor. But she's known other recovering drug users who have shown none of Corinne's resolve.

"They use (their circumstances) as an excuse," Rhonda said. "Corinne could be a real inspiration to them all."

Christina, meanwhile, inspires her mother.

"What keeps me holding on is that if she can be strong and not unhappy, what right do I have to be?" Corinne Reynolds said. "We live every day for the day. We just want to make her happy."

A life, however short it might be, worth celebrating.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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