Army of Support Stands With ‘Princess Warrior’

Playing with her Barbies, some sporting bold home haircuts, 9-year-old Priya Janae Smith of Burnsville, MN, mentions matter-of-factly that she has nearly died multiple times while hospitalized. She also makes clear that breathing through a tracheostomy collar is annoying, and needing a wheelchair to get around is worse.

After four heart surgeries to repair congenital heart defects, including a January 2021 procedure that resulted in a stroke and loss of movement from her waist down, Priya doesn’t mince words. Like when she told a neighbor, “I used to be able to walk, but I can’t anymore. And it really sucks.”

Priya’s mom, Christy Becker, describes what her daughter has endured—from her first open-heart surgery at 5 days to facing the after-effects of stroke and paralysis—from a parent’s perspective. “I wish I could trade places with her,” Christy said. “She had already been through so much, and now this, added to that. Everyone who knows Priya was like, ‘Are you kidding me?'”

But everyone in Priya’s orbit—including many who have been following her CaringBridge site since 2012 where she’s known as the “Princess Warrior”—also forms a bedrock of support.

Expressing frustration and sadness at unexpectedly losing so much independence has been part of Priya’s healing process. But she also has a single-mindedness and determination unusual in a child so young; paralysis and stroke simply will not limit what she intends to accomplish.

“The amount of support we’ve received has been astronomical … beyond belief,” Christy said. “People I’ve never met, people I met once at church, so many have done so much to help. I can feel them supporting us, praying for us, loving us.”

Christy’s gratitude is as immense as Priya’s need. And while she prays for cardiac stability, for her daughter to walk again, and for recovery of brain functions damaged by the stroke, Christy said, “Reality is reality, and we have to deal with that.”

With so many facets to Priya’s reality—medical and emotional care, making her home accessible, and getting her back to her academic baseline—Christy never imagined how her own professional training, and that of her two sisters, would come into play.

The year Priya was born, Christy changed careers from hairstylist and salon manager to personal care assistant because she needed more flexibility to support a child who had been through two open-heart surgeries before her first birthday.

Before a January 2021 heart surgery to replace her damaged pulmonary valve, Priya had learned to swim and was planning to start gymnastics. While surgical complications are always a possibility, no one ever imagined Priya leaving the hospital five months later, needing a wheelchair to get around.

“One of my patients had MS and was in a wheelchair,” Christy said. “I showered and bathed her, gave her meds, got her into bed … everything. It would have been a whole new deal for me to care for Priya in a wheelchair, but I can see God was preparing me.”

Christy’s sister, Julie, a pediatric nurse practitioner whose specialty is caring for patients with complex needs, is the family’s longtime translator of medical-speak. In the harrowing time after surgery to replace Priya’s pulmonary valve and conduit triggered a stroke and spinal cord injury, Julie was torn between balancing her professional knowledge and love for her niece.

Julie helped guide Priya through five months of in-patient therapies in preparation for her homecoming, and she continues to blend her roles as advocate and aunt. For example, an unexpected bonus as Priya recovered during the pandemic was “COVID bubble-bonding” between Julie’s two kids and Priya. What the cousins saw as summer fun also kept Priya germ-minimized and socially connected when neither in-person nor online school were possible.

Bridging the educational gap has been Priya’s Aunt Joy, a grade school and special education teacher. She took leave from her job to move in with her sister and niece, turning the guest room into a classroom. While there’s no formula for helping a child recover short-term memory, concentration and problem-solving skills lost through stroke, Joy’s experience, patience and love have guided her in the steady reconstruction of Priya’s academic skills and confidence.

The help that Priya needed most early in her recovery was fortuitously close to home. Her mom, Christy, left, is a personal care assistant, Aunt Joy is a special-education teacher and Aunt Julie is a pediatric nurse practitioner with expertise in complex care patients.

Lipstick, eye shadow and blush have helped, too. Joy, a makeup consultant, found that giving Priya creative freedom with cosmetics has been a source of fun and independence for a girl who had been short on both. And Priya learned a valuable lesson for later in life: When it comes to makeup, less can be more!

As fortuitous as it has been for Priya to have so much help close to home, creating her path forward is still really hard work. “She had just learned to swim and ride a bike,” Christy said. “She danced all the time. We were going to do gymnastics.”

Instead, Christy now navigates the paperwork of support, from securing an accessible vehicle and installing ramps and a stair-lift to replacing carpet with a wheelchair-friendly surface. A major victory was approval of a customized wheelchair for Priya that weighs 14 pounds vs. 44.

With encouragement from the family, Christy also has developed a plan for caregiver support. “Being a caregiver 24/7 is something I will do with all my heart—and I’ll do it with gladness,” Christy said. But she also knows the road is long, and that taking care of Priya means taking care of herself, too.

On the CaringBridge site started the year she was born, Priya goes by “Princess Warrior.” The troops standing with her since her first open-heart surgery at 5 days include grandparents Steve and Carolyn Becker, as well as her mom, brother aunts and cousins.

Priya’s grandpa, Steve, the main author of her CaringBridge Journal, has been capturing twists and turns in the road for a decade. In a recent entry, he wrote, “As tough as this is, we can see that Priya has the personality and grace to not let this define her. She’s got determination, love for life, and a hope that propels her forward. These will only grow as she participates in the challenges ahead. We are here with you Priya, no matter what it takes. You are not alone!”

The power of community also keeps Christy going. “As hard as this is right now, I know we’re not walking alone,” she said. “I keep telling Priya, ‘You have touched so many people’s lives.'”

That includes Priya’s brother, Miles, older by 12 years, whose troubling direction in life changed in response to his sister’s need. “To watch him switch roles and be able to be an adult, and the brother and son we’ve needed is huge,” Christy said. “He’s there for me. And he’s there for Priya.”

Cedric, Priya’s dad, is also there, adding extra elements of fun, including an amusement-park excursion in which Priya truly received princess treament.

While the extent of Priya’s ultimate recovery is uncertain and another heart surgery is expected in her teenage years, the focus today is on preparing her for tomorrow. She’s back in the classroom—depending on COVID protocols—had her tracheostomy removed, and the increase in her upper-body strength and confidence are impressive.

“Everything we’ve done so far has led up to right now,” Christy said. “Just like it will lead up to when she’s 16, and whatever Priya’s destiny is … or wherever God wants her to be.”

  • Jean Wilkinson

    It is Truly inspiring how you have found support to combat the loneliness associated with caregiving. Reading about how you maintain a positive outlook has given me the inspiration to find the support I need while caring for my husband with a chronic disease. Thank you.

  • Tangela Rivers

    Hi, I pray nothing but goodness,strength,and faithfulness. You such a cutie.

  • Sandra

    Sweet baby girl, Your are amazing. I want you to know that I am praying and asking God to be with you and to hold your hand every day of your journey. I pray one day you will walk, run and dance again.
    Stay strong and always remember that God has you on this Journey for his plan and purpose. You are an encouragement to all who see you and read your story. I know I am.
    Love you little girl,
    God bless you always

  • Relebohile Ntsane

    I have just joined CARING BRIDGE because I wanted to make a difference in someone’s life or bring hope to someone I don’t even know. Wow I am so inspired by a young lady.

    By reading this article make me realize that God Is there for us all and I thank God for her life she is going to heal the nation. I am from Africa in Lesotho . You have my support too and my prayers .

    The amount of support we’ve received has been astronomical … beyond belief,” Christy said. “People I’ve never met, people I met once at church, so many have done so much to help. I can feel them supporting us, praying for us, loving us.”

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  • Karen

    Bless her. my cousin had the excact same thing except she was 5 months old and her parents were told it as bronculits over and over again until finally they did chest x-ray and found she had hypoplastic left heart syndrome she the got a berlin heart and they did physio on her unfortunely she didn’t learn how to crawl it was strait to standing. then just after she turned one, on the 24 th of February she got a heart. An assisted living facility in Temecula maybe good

  • Kathleen Hirsch

    Priya, Always think positive thoughts about what you will be able to do and work each day to make them your personal new reality. If you believe it can happen it will if you work toward your new “I can do…..goal list.” With goals you have plans. Without goals all you have is unplanned time. We need a plan to push us in the right direction. It may take a long to accomplish a goal. But in my humble estimation it won’t happen without a plan or goal. Believe in yourself and exercise, exercise, do your daily exercise. Be strong as all girls are. We are not wimps. We are Girl Power!!

  • Marsha Robinson

    Priya, I want you to know that you are a beautiful young lady with so much courage. I will be praying for you an your family. Sending lots of love and hugs.

  • Larry Bucher

    Priya! I have a couple of thoughts I’ll share with you. . .across the miles and miles between where you live and Baltimore, Maryland. First and foremost, YOU–YOU–are, yes, a princess, but just as importantly, a young girl of tremendous strength and courage which, as you know, is so challenging to remain dealing with . . day in and day out! Yes, it’s special to have so many family and friends assisting you. . .but YOU are the one who is accepting the medical challenges with which you are dealing. . .making the progress you are making. . and teaching all of those other folks incredibly important lessons about how to live! I am in awe of your personal journey!

    Keep up your good work; take one day at a time. . .maybe even one breath at a time and tell your Dad you’d wish, before long, to return to that Amusement Park!

    Blessings to you, young lady!

  • Elaine Methven

    Something similar happened to my cousins son before he was 1 year old he had a stroke in both sides of his brain! He is now 35 and (unfortunately is now battling brain cancer) he could always walk but does not speak. So I’m praying for Priya also.

  • Amma Joy

    After reading Priya’s story I cried almost for an hour, I’ll pray for her..!

  • Mihaela Mitroi

    Intradevar o poveste foarte trista ,acceste fetite care a trecut prin multe ,si cu ajutorul celor din jur este in viata sa le dea dumnezeu multa sanatate.Doamne ajuta !🙏🙏🙏

  • Lynndyg

    Christy your faith and the accompanying strength provided is very evident. You and you dear beautiful Pryia along with the rest of your family show us the way and give much-needed Hope in today’s world. May God’s blessing of love, peace, joy and laughter follow you always. Our prayers do as well.

  • Autumn

    New to Caring Bridges. I came across your story of this sweet baby girl! I know we don’t know one another. But please know we are praying for sweet Pryia!
    God bless you all!

  • Colleen MacNeil

    What an amazing family! Thank you for sharing your story. Pryia my dear sweet girl, I believe God is with you and your family during these struggles in life. ✝️ May he always continue to bless you and your family with much hope and wonderful blessings and miracles.
    Christy, I love what you said that God was preparing you. I too have a similar story with a special needs son. If you ever want to talk or just pray together, feel free to reach out to me as I believe our paths are similar in life. I would certainly understand what path you are walking
    You are not alone. ✝️ much love being sent your way and prayers going up for all of you! God bless!✝️🙏❤

  • Deborah Keenan

    It is wonderful the Pryia has so many friends and family supporting her and that she has a positive attitude for one so young. God bless Pryia and all her family and friends!

  • June Kim

    I’m so sorry to her and her family that had to go through this and I hope that she continues to spread her love and inspiration everywhere she goes.

  • Virginia Kadera

    She shines with grace, strength and love thanks to all of her family. ❤