Sybil Cumberland, a Children's Heart Center patient since she was a baby, is the state's 2020 Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Champion.
Sybil Cumberland, a Children's Heart Center patient since she was a baby, is the state's 2020 Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Champion.
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State’s 2020 CMNH Champion keeps the beat with a mended heart

Published on Thursday, January 16, 2020

By: Annie Oeth, aoeth@umc.edu

As a competitive dancer and tumbler, Sybil Cumberland of Preston moves to a musical beat.

Thanks to Children’s of Mississippi cardiologists and surgeons, she steps to that beat with a healthy heart.

Named Mississippi’s 2020 Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Champion during a celebration in Meridian Wednesday, Sybil has been a patient of Children’s of Mississippi’s Children’s Heart Center since she was an infant.

Sybil is shown in one of the routines she and her fellow dancers perform.
Sybil performs a routine with her fellow dancers.

Born with a congenital heart defect, Sybil underwent two surgeries at the state’s only children’s hospital, recovering in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit.

“Sybil’s life was saved by Children’s of Mississippi care,” said her mother, Tara Cumberland. “Anything we can do to support the children’s hospital, we will do.”

Sybil couldn’t agree more. During December, she collected toy donations to give to children’s hospital patients. Tara, Sybil and older brother Davis delivered wagonloads of Barbie dolls, action figures, stuffed animals, games and books to Children’s of Mississippi in time for the gifts to brighten Christmas for patients.

The Cumberland family includes parents Tara and Jason and their children, Davis and Sybil.
The Cumberland family includes parents Tara and Jason and children Davis and Sybil.

She’s also been a regular at the annual Mississippi Miracles Radiothon, a Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals fundraiser that benefits Children’s of Mississippi, broadcasting her story with Meridian-area stations. During the 2019 college football season, Sybil was the Kid Captain for Mississippi State University when the Bulldogs hosted Alabama. She’s also active in supporting other causes, serving as an ambassador for the March of Dimes’ March for Babies and modeling in fashion shows for the American Heart Association.

“Children’s of Mississippi keeps my heart healthy,” Sybil said, “and I will do my best to represent the children’s hospital and the patients there.”

Every year, 170 local Children's Miracle Network Hospitals identify a Champion in each of their local communities to serve as the face for children treated at their local children's hospital. These ambassadors spend their year advocating for the charitable need of children's hospitals across North America.

Tara said Sybil’s Champion year will combine “two of her loves, dance and Children’s of Mississippi.”

With her healthy heart, Sybil performs with a dance company from Carol Merrill Academy of Dance in Meridian, competing in dance forms as varied as ballet, tap and jazz, among others.

Surrounded by fellow dancers, Sybil gets a hug from her dance teacher, Carol Merrill.
Surrounded by her fellow dancers, Sybil gets a hug from her dance teacher, Carol Merrill.

“Dance is in Sybil’s heart,” said studio founder Merrill. “It just pours out of her. Sybil always strives to do her best, and she is all about learning her craft.”

Merrill includes an improvisational time during dance lessons, and she had put on the Kidz Bop version of “Fight Song” to inspire choreography by her students.

Sybil heard the words, “This is my fight song, take back my life song,” and told Merrill, “That’s my song!”

“She is a fighter,” Merrill said, “and she’s a very special little miracle.”

Today a healthy second-grader at Kemper Academy, Sybil sees pediatric cardiologist Dr. Aimee Parnell to make sure her surgical repairs grow as she does.

Portrait of Dr. Aimee Parnell

“Sybil has always been a precious little thing,” said Parnell, associate professor of pediatric cardiology. “Every time she comes to see us at Children’s of Mississippi, she’s really sweet and friendly. She’s more reserved now, but as a younger child, she loved to run around the exam room.”

Sybil has known Parnell as long as she can remember, since she was just 9 months old when Parnell became her cardiologist.

Surrounded by dancers and Children's of Missisippi supporters, John Clark Packer announces Sybil as the state's 2020 Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Champion.
John Clark Packer announces Sybil has been selected as the state's 2020 Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Champion.

“I don’t remember having my heart surgeries because I was a baby then, but I am happy to be healthy now,” Sybil said. “I see my doctor once a year so she can check my heart.”

Sybil entered the world at a healthy 7 pounds, 5 ounces, but unbeknown to her family and physicians, she arrived with a broken heart.

The first sign of trouble: Sybil didn't take her first breath until several minutes after birth. “They put her on a CPAP immediately,” Tara said.

Sybil had a healthy weight, so she went home after two and a half weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit. However, she was growing weaker by the day.

At first, her feeding problems were blamed on reflux, but when Sybil, about 2 months old, went into distress, the Cumberlands knew they needed a higher level of care. Tara and husband Jason took Sybil to Children’s of Mississippi, where they were told their daughter was suffering from congestive heart failure. Holes in her heart were stealing blood from the rest of her body and sending it to her lungs.

Sybil and her mom, Tara, look over well-wishes and drawings from her friends and fellow dancers.
Sybil and her mother, Tara, look at well wishes and drawings from her friends and fellow dancers.

Children with congenital heart defects spend so much of their energy on breathing and on circulating blood through their bodies that they fail to thrive because there's little energy left for eating.

About one in every 100 babies born has a congenital heart defect, making it the most common type of birth defect. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 million children live with congenital heart defects. Because of medical advances, there are now more adults – about 1.4 million – than children with congenital heart defects.

Once Sybil's heart defects were discovered, she was too weak for the surgery to close the holes. At 2 and a half months, a band was placed on Sybil's pulmonary artery to restrict blood flow to her lungs.  Sybil then regained her strength for a more extensive surgery at 6 months that closed the holes in her heart and removed the band on her pulmonary artery.

“Children’s of Mississippi not only treats children. They treat the entire family,” said Tara. “The treatment she received was unbelievable. Jason and I were new to the heart world, but the doctors and nurses were beside us, answering our questions.”

Both surgeries went well, but Parnell said Sybil will need to see a cardiologist throughout her life to monitor her heart’s condition.

“She has a low risk of ever needing more surgery,” Parnell said, “and she should have a healthy life ahead.”