Hokie Nation rallies around super fan with rare disease
Dani Jo Hearl has become a light for Virginia Tech through her Twitter videos
MOUNT AIRY, N.C. – It's a pretty normal Wednesday night at the Hearl household. Jordan, the oldest sister of three- has a night off from cheer practice. Jamie, the middle child, just finished a soccer game. And the youngest, Dani Jo, finished with another day at school.
And it's not a normal evening without a mention of the Virginia Tech Hokies.
Most Hokie fans who have access to Twitter have seen Dani Jo at work. Her big smile and love for the maroon and orange spills over in videos she and her dad make for players and teams at Virginia Tech.
But things haven't always been normal for Dani Jo-- it's been the Hearl family normal since she was a baby, when she was diagnosed with a disease called congenital central hypoventaliation syndrome.
"The nerve, the phrenic nerve, goes from your brain stem to your diaphragm, that nerve is the thing that sends the impulse to your diaphragm to breathe," Dani Jo's dad, Joey, explained. "The instant she falls asleep, that part of her brain shuts off and so you have about 30 seconds from when she falls asleep to put on the ventilator, or she dies."
"It causes challenges, and it changes the way you live your life. It taught us that you don't take time for granted, you don't take people for granted, you live every day as if you may not see that person again," he said.
Dani just celebrated her 12th birthday and continues to live the Hearl family norm.
"It may have been different for everybody else but it was normal for us," Jamie said. "We grew up this way, and I wouldn't take it back for anything."
"That kid has been through 10 or 12 surgeries, she's died probably 15 times and been resuscitated, and when I think about that, I realize how blessed I am," Joey said.
A few years ago the Hearls made a trip to Blacksburg for Buzz's Bunch, an event put on by former Virginia Tech head basketball coach Buzz Williams for kids with special needs. There she met former Virginia Tech guard Devin Wilson... and her love for the Hokies blossomed.
"She would come to games with her dad and her sisters, they would sit right by where we warm up at, and tell one of the managers to come and get me," Wilson said. "I would always walk over there and she'd show me a picture she drew or a picture of me or a picture of her and her family, anything from that, and we'd always take a picture from the game and it kind of just built from there."
So, when the Hearls found out that Devin had made a photo of him and Dani Jo his profile picture, they decided it was time to join the Twitter world, and the videos followed suit.
"Any time it would be somebody's birthday or something, she would record 'Happy Birthday', send it to them, good luck at the game kind of thing," Joey said.
But until a few weeks ago when Dani Jo was sick in the hospital, no one had quite comprehended the impact she was making on Hokie Nation.
"I had an idea a lot of people loved Dani Jo but I was never prepared for the overwhelming love and support," Joey said.
"It's really cool just to see the people who care about her and the people that even though they don't know her or met her, they still care about her and uplift her," Jamie added.
"I think that the wholesome love that her and her family are showing toward the Hokies, I think when it's unconditional and it's natural, people can feel it. People can understand it. There's no gimmicks. So when that love is real people respond to it and I think that's why it's getting the recognition it has been on social media," Devin said.
"The thing that she is here to do is to show people that whatever it is you're going through, you can overcome it," Joey said. "I get a front row seat to that every day and I can't think of anything better in life than the opportunity to see that every day."
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