Before rain moved into the area Wednesday night, 10-year-old Meya Haberberger, Beaufort, was able to get a couple of passes in at the World Wide Technology Racetrack just across the Mississippi River in Madison, Ill., to earn her license as a junior drag racer.
Meya, daughter of Tiffany Haberberger, Union, and Bob and Amanda Haberberger, Beaufort, had been dreaming about that moment for much of her short life, but feared it could never become a reality due to her health.
Born with Heterotaxy Syndrome, which means the configuation of her heart and other organs was different, Meya faced a number of health concerns, some that were very serious.
“Her stomach is more in the center, rather than on the side,” said Bob Haberberger. “She also has polysplenia, which means instead of one spleen, she has multiple little ones. But they’ve tested them and say they function well.”
Meya had a malrotation of her bowels that required surgery to correct, but from the start the biggest concern for her health was always the configuration of her heart. She was born with HLHS or hypoplastic left heart syndrome, where half of her heart didn’t develop.
“Instead of a four-chamber heart, Meya only had two chambers,” said Bob.
To get her heart to function required a series of surgeries, the first of which came when she was just 7 days old. Others followed at 9 months, 18 months (which was emergency surgery) and again at 3 years old.
After that, life got a little easier for Meya and she enjoyed six years of good health, going to the cardiologist every three months for routine care. Then last July, she found herself getting really tired and having gastrointestinal issues.
“Her stomach hurt to the point where she couldn’t eat anything,” said Bob.
The news wasn’t good. Meya ended up in the hospital where doctors found that she was in heart failure. Even with the corrective surguries she’d had, Meya’s half of a heart couldn’t function any more.
She needed a transplant.
To prepare for that, Meya was an in-patient at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital from July through September 2018. That was a hard stretch, said Meya, noting one of the worst experiences was getting the PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line inserted to get medicine to her heart.
“She basically had to wear a backpack with a 24-hour medicine,” said Bob.
Meya said the nurses tried to lighten the experience by playing with her when they could. At other times, people from the hospital’s Child Life department would spend time with her.
But what really motivated Meya were stories and photos her dad shared with her from the racetrack.
Bob has been drag racing since he was 16. His car of choice is a door car, a 1971 Plymouth Duster.
He has been taking Meya along with him to the racetrack all of her life, as long as she was healthy enough to go. Last summer after they learned she needed a heart transplant and she was in the hospital for several months, he didn’t go to the track much, but if he did, he sent her photos and kept her up to date on what was going on.
“She lived for that. It was a pick-me-up,” he said. “Any kind of car show, she’d say, ‘If you go, send me pictures.’ ”
Then in February, when a suitable heart donor had been found and Meya returned to the hospital for a transplant, she was focused on one thing — getting healthy so she could become a junior drag racer.
“It’s fun,” said Meya, who has watched the sport from a distance all these years going to the track with her dad.
The transplant went well and the results of the first biopsy to check for rejection showed that everything was good, said Bob. However, the second biopsy in March showed she was in “rejection,” so Meya was given steroids to help turn things around, and her third biopsy in April shows that approach seems to be working.
“She’s still technically in rejection, but it’s been getting better,” said Bob, noting that Meya is still taking steroids. “It was caught early enough that they could reverse it.”
Meya’s doctors just recently gave her clearance to start drag racing. The surgeon and transplant team told the family she is the first child transplant patient they’ve had who has gone on to drag racing.
“But that’s what kept her going the whole time through all of this while she was in the hospital,” said Bob. “She would say, ‘When I get done, I get to race!’ ”
When Bob began to realize that Meya’s health was likely going to be strong enough for her to start drag racing, he spoke to his longtime friend Tim Davis, owner of Certified Collision Center in St. Clair, about getting her a car to compete. Davis took the lead in making it happen.
He organized a series of 50-50 raffles at races and car shows to raise money to purchase a junior dragster for Meya. They raised around $4,500, in large part because the winners (Katie May, Jim Beas and Eric McGlen) repeatedly donated their prize back to the cause. There were other significant donations, include $1,000 from Chris and Terri Nowak and a donation from Bill Arnold.
“Everybody was all excited for (Meya),” said Davis, noting he received key support from the Route 66 Car Club, St. Clair Elks Lodge, St. Clair Area Chamber of Commerce and director Charlene Saling. “Nobody ever said no.
“Everybody stepped up and jumped in to help. So many people helped.”
The goal had been to raise around $7,000, but with the help of the Stewart Racing Team (Mike and Angela Stewart and their children, Sam and Sarah) out of Washington, they were able to build the car more ecomically. Through their contacts, the Stewarts were able to find and negotiate good prices on a motor and transmission.
The Stewarts, who had met the Haberbergers a couple of years earlier at the racetrack, were happy to support Meya’s dream of racing junior dragsters. Both their children have been racing for years, and they know the joy it brings them.
“The Stewarts have been great mentors to Meya,” Bob remarked.
He’s grateful for all of the work the family put into making Meya’s dream come true. Not only did they build the car, but they added several personal touches to its design, including a green heart stitched into the back of the seat, a series of pink and white checkerboard hearts along the side and a green ribbon to represent organ donation.
The name of the car is “Meya’s Miracle,” and on the top, it reads, “The greatest HERO I never knew was the ORGAN DONOR who saved My LIFE.”
Many of the people involved in bringing “Meya’s Miracle” to be were at Certified Collision Center last month when they presented it to her as a gift for her 10th birthday.
When she walked in, a group of them were standing in front of the car, so she couldn’t see it. They sang Happy Birthday to her and then they moved, revealing the car, which was covered.
“She just stopped, froze,” Bob recalled, with a smile.
Her friends Sam and Sarah Stewart removed the cover, and Meya lit up at the surprise. The moment was captured on Facebook Live, and is available if you search “Meya’s Miracle.”
“It was a very special moment to see her sit in that car, because there were times during this process that we weren’t sure she was going to be with us,” said Davis. “We just kept moving forward with it. We called it ‘Meya’s Miracle,’ and it was and it is.”
Standing next to her junior dragster in the garage at her father’s house, Meya didn’t hestitate to point out her favorite part of its design — the green heart stitched into the seat back.
“And I love that it’s green,” she said, noting that’s the color of organ donation.
The car is registered under 5709, which represents Meya’s birthday: May 7, 2009.
Now that Meya has her NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) license as a junior dragster, she is looking forward to spending as much time at the track as possible and competing in as many races as she can.
In fact, she’s already looking ahead to when she turns 16 and can advance to racing door cars.
“When I get older I’m going to race a (Dodge) Demon,” said Meya.
There’s already a Demon car body at her grandfather’s, just waiting for her.