19-Year-Old Heart Attack Survivor is #HaileyStrong

On Monday, March 23rd, University of Virginia students Savannah and Caitlin Lane received some of the worst news of their life. Their sister, Hailey Lane, had suffered a massive heart attack and was in critical condition at Richmond's Chippenham Hospital. But instead of waiting idly while Hailey fought for her life, the Lanes have launched #WeAreHaileyStrong, a social media campaign that has reached millions, including Al Roker, Ryan Lochte and the USA swimming team, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Heart attacks are, unfortunately, not an unusual occurrence: about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack every year, according to the CDC. But it's incredibly rare for those heart attack victims to be 19 years old. The average age for women to have a first heart attack is 70. However, Hailey, who is a second-year cadet at the Air Force Academy, had never experienced heart trouble before. But in the midst of doing pull-ups at the ACAC in Midlothian, she collapsed and had to be put on a life-support machine.

Hailey's story affects me on more than just a basic empathetic level. I went to high school with Hailey, Savannah, and Caitlin. During those years, Caitlin and I performed in musicals, which the other Lanes often attended. I quickly noticed that the Lanes had one of the tightest-knit families I had ever met. The five Lane children twins Caitlin and Brianna, 21; twins Savannah and Hailey, now 20; and 10-year-old Brennan seemed to constantly take strength and solace from each other. When I saw Savannah's Facebook update saying that Hailey was in critical condition, I thought, "This is happening to the wrong family."

But the Lanes didn't take this blow sitting down and neither did their friends. Caitlin and Savannah's constant Facebook updates, asking for their relatives' and friends' prayers and support, galvanized an entire network of people to start posting the #WeAreHaileyStrong hashtag. According to Keyhole, a hashtag tracker, over 600 posts have been made on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag, and posts have reached over 712,000 people.

But, Caitlin tells Bustle, she and her family had never even thought of it as a campaign. "We just wanted as many people praying for her as possible. Social media has helped us spread her message first amongst family members and friends. Now, the amount of people worldwide who have supported her completely overwhelms me yet, at the same time, makes my heart so full," she wrote in a Facebook message.

She added that the hashtag itself had been their neighbors' idea, and that their neighbors had supported and loved the Lanes for years. They were the first to take and share a photo related to the hashtag.

Since Hailey first entered the hospital last week, her condition has improved drastically: she's been taken off her ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine, which provided cardiac and respiratory support, and the left side of her heart is functioning properly again. No longer in a coma, she now opens her eyes and smiles when her family members enter the room. But Hailey still needs support. Caitlin told me that it isn't clear what's next for Hailey: "Regardless of the cause of her heart attack, she has a long journey ahead of her."

The last time she saw Hailey, Caitlin says, she couldn't help crying. "I was in the room with Savannah, and she [Hailey] opened her eyes immediately upon hearing our voices. She just stared wide-eyed at us. After a few minutes, she was getting sleepy, so her eyes started drifting shut. When my mom walked into the room and said "Hi, Hailey, Mom's here, everything is going to be OK," Hailey's eyes shot open and she smiled the most relief-filled and joyous smile I have ever seen. I usually try not to cry in front of Hailey...but I couldn't help it at that point. I've never seen a smile like that."

Today, Hailey and Savannah turn 20. Their mother, Brigid, wrote on Facebook, "Twenty years ago, two hearts beat in darkness together, waiting to emerge into the world. Now, in a room where lights are often dimmed against pain, a weakened heart beats while the other heart aches with love and devotion for her twin sister." The rest of Hailey's journey may be long and hard, but it's clear that she won't have to go it alone.

If you'd like to support Hailey, you can donate to a fund that Savannah has set up. Proceeds will go to the Children's Miracle Network and the Miss America Scholarship Fund.

Images: USA Swimming/Twitter; Hailey Lane, Caitlin Lane/Facebook