Odunola “Ola” Ojewumi, quite possibly the most optimistic college junior in America, was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart defect, at a young age.
“Do you want me to spell it for you?” Ola asked, politely, in an interview with HuffPost on Monday. “They taught me how to do that in the hospital.”
Ola remembers being flown by helicopter at age 12 from her home in Prince George’s County, Md., to a hospital in Washington, D.C. As they flew, she and her parents prayed that she’d make it through the ride.
“I was fading in and out of consciousness,” she said. “When I woke up in the hospital I had a million tubes down my throat. I didn’t know where I was; I just saw this nurse shining a flashlight in my eyes. It was like that show, 'ER,' or something.”
The helicopter ride came after months of difficult treatments for Ola’s heart condition, which had begun to affect the rest of her body, as well.
“The doctors thought I’d be able to be treated, but those treatments were actually causing my kidneys to fail, too,” she said. “So then I needed two transplants.”
After that helicopter ride and subsequent hospitalization, Ola and her family knew she needed the transplants or she wouldn’t make it much longer. Thankfully, in December, the donors came through. She received both transplants and was in and out of the hospital in barely two and a half weeks.
“I broke a record!” Ola said. “Because I was out of that hospital so fast.”
The years following the procedure were trying -- Ola had to use a wheelchair sometimes, and had trouble walking "more than a block." And in 2009, when Ola was a freshman at the University of Maryland, doctors found complications with her transplant, and she was diagnosed with a rare form of transplant cancer.
“I got really emotional after that diagnosis,” Ola remembers. “And I started talking to a lot of people about what I really wanted to do with my life.”
Always ambitious, Ola took matters into her own hands. Working with Prince George’s County councilman Tom Dernoga, she founded Sacred Heart Children’s Transplant Foundation, an organization dedicated to increasing awareness for transplants and donor registration. Through Sacred Heart, Ola raised money for teddy bear and book drives and even started a separate mentoring program for inner-city pre-teenagers -- a summer camp, which was recently recognized by Michelle Obama.
“When you’re 12, you’re kind of in between things.” Ola said. “Too old for camp, but too young to get a job. A lot of other girls, where I’m from, they don’t have a lot of options for themselves.”
The girls at Ola’s camp recently participated in a clothing drive, donating more than 400 pairs of jeans to local, homeless teenagers.
And Ola’s showing no signs of slowing down. She’s also digging deep into her politics studies at the University of Maryland., trying to make a few changes. “I’m trying to make public transportation free for all low-income students,” she said. “If they were able to afford transportation then they could take part in mentoring programs and keep themselves off the streets.”
And thanks to a recent grant from MTVU, Ola is working toward establishing a scholarship program for Sacred Heart, providing money to recent transplant recipients and their families.
“When I was in the hospital I received a grant from a family with a child who’d had a transplant,” Ola said. “That money helped my family so much. They were basically working just to pay for my insurance at the time. And I’d love to be able to assist families with children with medical needs; low-income students coming from my neighborhood.”
As if she didn’t have enough on her plate, Ola, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, also found time to travel to Guatemala with the United Nations Population Fund last year, visiting girls who participate in mentoring programs abroad.
Though her health isn’t perfect, Ola has found solace in planning for her future.
“I still take about 15 pills a day, and one injection a week, and there’s a bunch of projects I want to do,” she said, laughing. “It’s hard managing it, but having some type of organization gives me the drive to be able to juggle both. Luckily I have my motivation in Sacred Heart.”