Watch me!

Emily Ryan, a patient at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Heart Center, turned a life-long determination to succeed in the face of adversity into a powerful college application essay. The following words may be Emily’s, but the sentiment defines so many Boston Children’s patients and families that we asked Emily to share it with our readers.


As I pull through the gates of YMCA Camp Huckins for my eighth summer, this time as a counselor, I am handed a thick packet to guide me through the two busy months ahead. On the front cover is the quote: “There are so many people out there who will tell you that you can’t. What you’ve got to do is turn around and say ‘watch me.’ ”

As a cardiology patient at Boston Children’s Hospital, and the recipient of several heart surgeries as a young child, I find this quote particularly meaningful. An adventurous youngster, I first realized I was different during recess in kindergarten.  Running with my friends, bouncing around the playground equipment, I leapt into the air to hang from the monkey bars. “Emily, too high,” a teacher’s voice yelled.  “You know you can’t jump off of that; you have a heart condition.” And so I held back, containing the bubbly energy that made me want to run, skip and play like any other kid.

To myself, I was just Emily.  I never thought or talked much about my surgeries. But to others, I was fragile. The white scars on my chest and stomach, which I tried so hard to conceal, were a reminder that I was different.

Emily with members of her care team, Mark Alexander, MD and Ligia Jordan

“People will always tell you that you can’t.”  When I first read this quote, I felt 12 years old again, standing in front of a counter at a white water rafting attraction. I had been looking forward to this rafting trip with my Girl Scout troop for weeks. But I felt this excitement drain away, replaced by a hard ball in the pit of my stomach as a woman with bleach blonde hair told me that, despite the notes from my doctor, I would not be permitted to raft with the rest of my friends, all because of a heart condition that labeled me as “delicate.” I will never forget her sugary sweet voice, the confusion and questions from the other girls in my troop that made me want to disappear, and my feeling of humiliation. “You can never let people like that stop you, Emily,” my mom told me on the long ride home. “Never forget that. You can do anything you put your heart into.”

The competition watches Emily fly by

It’s several years later and I can feel a breeze blowing behind me and the soft track beneath my feet as my teammate rounds the corner and the shiny gold baton is smacked into my hand for the final leg of its journey in my 4×400 relay. I am 20 meters behind, and I can hear my breathing puffing in a quick, rhythmic cadence as I fly down the straightaway, the screaming of my teammates in the background. My legs are on fire and for a split second I am reminded of the people who told me I could not. But I’m half way there now, and I can hear my coach screaming my split and, “You can do it, Em!” I think about all the training

I put into this race as I round the turn, my shoulder only inches behind the leader.  I’m passing her now, sprinting down the final 100 meters, realizing that it doesn’t matter what people say or think. As I push through the final meters, leaning over the finish line to take the win, I don’t feel fragile. I feel powerful. And later, when my coach gives me my relay split and I realize I’ve finally accomplished my goal, deep down I know that I worked so hard for that race because I needed to prove those people wrong. I no longer care about a few silly white scars because scars make stories—this is my story, scars and all.

In my head, I see that bleach blonde hair. I hear the sugary voice saying, “you can’t,” and all I’m thinking is “watch me.”

Emily was recently accepted into Bucknell University, where she will begin classes next September as well as run as a member of the University’s Track and Field team.

One thought on “Watch me!

  1. We love Dr. Alexander, he is amazing! Thank you for sharing your story and best of luck in college!
    The Callahan Family

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