Friendship carries Millikan teen through heart ordeals, transplant surgery

Ivy McLean and Anika Stewart aren’t related by blood, but they are family.

The 16-year-olds have known each other since preschool, when Ivy admits she was a little bossy, and Anika says she bossed right back.

“It’s more of a sibling relationship,” Anika said. “My mom refers to [Ivy] as one of her kids.”

Their close relationship has helped give Ivy the support she’s needed during immense health challenges over the past five years, including going into cardiac arrest in February 2017. She was diagnosed at the time with a rare congenital gene mutation that was solved, at least temporarily, with a pacemaker.

But last summer, Ivy again began having heart problems, and after being hospitalized twice with atrial fibrillation, doctors concluded she would need a heart transplant.

In October she was placed on a waitlist at UCLA Medical Center, and last week, she got the news the family was hoping for: She found a match, and underwent successful heart transplant surgery.

The process has been expensive, but her extended family has stepped up to support her and her immediate family. Anika and Ivy’s mom Denise have already raised over $60,000 for medical expenses.

Denise helped set up an account at COTA (Children’s Organ Transplant Association), and Anika made a sticker with an ivy wrapped around her heart. She sold it for $5 apiece and has raised about $1,500 for Ivy to specifically use for fun activities.

“It just sucks because she’s supposed to be going out living a teenage life,” Anika said. “But she can’t even stay awake long enough to talk to her friends. … Ivy is a really happy person. She acknowledges the fact that she’s going through this but she doesn’t let it define her.”

“I’m really proud that even in this situation, where you can feel helpless, that she’s still finding ways to help,” Anika’s mother, Rhea, said of her daughter.

“It’s unimaginable,” Ivy said of the support. “They really love me so much and I love them so much. … I’m just so happy I can say that I have a best friend and another whole family who help me.”

Anika and Ivy were able to spend almost the entirety of COVID-19 quarantine together, and they both said that helped them get through the difficult time. They tried to get outside near El Dorado Park as much as possible, while also doing a lot of hair cutting and dying for each other. During Christmas, Anika and her friends built a comfortable wagon so they could pull Ivy around the neighborhood.

“During quarantine I basically lived at her house,” Anika said. “I was there for like weeks on end. She was basically the only person I saw. It was really fun. I can’t complain about quarantine when I was at her house.”

Ivy and Anika didn’t go to the same schools all of the time while growing up in Long Beach, but they always found reasons to be together. Ivy even started attending Bollywood dance lessons with Anika.

“She was the only blonde white girl in those classes,” Anika’s mother said of Ivy. “They’re like sisters.”

Ivy McLean, left, and Anika Stewart. Courtesy the McLean family.

Ivy said she’s staying positive by focusing on the future and hoping for a return to Millikan High in time for senior year activities.

“She’s really funny and we’re always just joking around,” Anika said of Ivy. “When we hang out we’re hardly ever talking about the fact that she needs a new heart. It’s just making jokes, making fun of our parents because both of us see our parents as another set of parents because we’ve grown up with them. We mess with each other’s families like they’re our families.”

Denise McLean added that the support from her neighbors and co-workers as a nurse has also been instrumental to her family staying strong while they waited for Ivy’s heart transplant.

One of those family friends, Noaki Schwartz, said that the McLean’s are, “The kind of people who make Long Beach a very special place.”

“(Ivy) was excited for a heart transplant so she could go to her prom,” Schwartz added. “That’s what you think about when you’re 16… You can’t help but really want to help them.”

Ivy’s surgery UCLA Medical Center has so far been a success. She was taken off the breathing machine and is breathing on her own.

While she was intubated post-surgery, Ivy couldn’t speak, but she wrote, “Tell Anika I love her,” message on a whiteboard for her mom to take a picture and text it to the Stewart family.

All donations to the McLean family through COTA are tax-deductible. Donations can be made here

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