Devan Ferrell walked across the graduation stage last month as Grace Christian School’s first female 12-time letter winner, having played one sport in each of the three athletic seasons for all four years.
While attending the Raleigh school, she suited up for volleyball each fall, basketball each winter and softball each spring.
Given her medical history, there was little reason to think she could have pulled off such a feat.
Ferrell has undergone five surgeries on her heart since she was born, plus four more operations for foot and knee injuries.
But her love of sports, strong will and body that will break but not break down helped her persevere.
She wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“Whoever I can find to let me play, I’ll play whatever sport it is,” said Devan, 18, who lives in Cary.
Early heart problems
The first of Devan’s five heart surgeries – the last four were all open-heart – came when she was about 2 weeks old to fix aortic narrowing. Born with congenital heart defects, she was 8 pounds, 9 ounces at birth, but most of the weight likely came from fluid in her body.
“Every time she would gain weight, we would think it was good, and it would be because it was fluid,” said Ron Ferrell, her father.
Her first of the four open-heart surgeries came when she was 3 months old.
“They said if we could make it to a year ‘til the (next surgery), her chances of survival would increase 50 percent,” Ron Ferrell said. “They told us she might be able to go to school one day with an optimistic outcome.”
But the third surgery came at 10 months old, and there was another before she turned 3. Even today, she suffers from subaortic stenosis. The narrowing of the left ventricle of the heart affects the blood flow.
Nonetheless, Ferrell went to school and quickly fell in love with sports. She was cleared to play when she was 4. She was pretty good at an early age. She was on Grace Christian’s varsity soccer team while still in middle school.
She turned to her older brother, Davis, for inspiration. He’s one of the school’s two 12-time male letter-winners. Devan wanted to be the first girl to do the same.
“I wanted to be like my brother when I was younger,” Devan said. “He was my role model.”
Her last heart surgery, which came two days before she turned 14, almost stopped her from accomplishing her goal and threatened to end her playing career before she was even a freshman. A valve needed to be replaced.
The possibility of not playing sports again wasn’t revealed to Devan until just before the surgery. She became upset, she recalled.
“Don’t you let them do that to me!” she told her mother, June, before going back for surgery. The family prayed as the surgery lasted three hours longer than was expected, but for a good reason.
Doctors didn’t have to replace the valve. Instead, it was repaired, and she was told she wouldn’t need an artificial valve for about 10 more years.
“Of course I got worried,” June Ferrell recalled. “Because when the surgery kept going longer, I was thinking there’s problems, something’s wrong. And they found a way to salvage the valve, so they did not have to replace it.”
Even better, Devan was able to return to playing the sports she loved so much.
“But he did tell us, eventually, it’ll have to be replaced,” June Ferrell said. “But that allowed her to play sports.”
Once Devan got to high school, she suffered one injury after another – from a broken finger to a dislocated hip. She has a titanium rod in her knee and another in her foot. Complications such as shin splints and stress fractures, which she also battled, were minor injuries in comparison.
Before her sophomore year of basketball, Devan was injured playing a co-ed soccer game. She felt pain in her knee all year but could still run, walk and jump. So she played on.
The doctors never suspected she had torn her anterior cruciate ligament, meniscus and cartilage.
“They kept thinking I was weak,” Devan said. “I didn’t have pain walking, but if I ever stopped to cut, or like take a jump shot because I was in basketball, people could see it.
“I only felt pain when I would fall. You would hear a blood-curdling scream.”
The misdiagnosis wasn’t discovered until 10 months later. The doctors told her she was part of 5 percent of patients whose knees don’t show inflammation after an ACL tear.
“So she rehabbed and rehabbed and played a whole year of basketball, played on two softball teams and (played catcher) the entire time with a torn ACL, meniscus and cartilage,” Ron Ferrell said.
Devan is a fast healer, but she didn’t heal fast enough to play her junior year of volleyball.
She still earned an athletic letter, though, that junior year because she practiced with the team and dressed out. She was ready to go into a game if absolutely needed, though in reality, she wouldn’t have been able to perform a necessary skill: dive on the floor for a ball.
It evens out. Devan said she was unable to receive a varsity letter as a middle-schooler, despite playing for the soccer team one season.
Living out her dreams
Devan’s teammates know about her heart problems from seeing the scars.
“I tried to not make it a big thing,” Devan said. “I didn’t want them to make excuses for why I couldn’t do things, because I could.”
Devan is a fierce competitor, unafraid to be a vocal leader. She almost always was a starter.
Ron Ferrell helped coach her softball team, and the family has supported throughout her quest to match her brother’s accomplishment.
Devan graduated with a 3.9 GPA and will enroll at UNC Wilmington in the fall, which will bring a fitting end to her story, if all goes well.
Having spent so much time in the hospital, Devan has become interested in physical therapy, and she wants to pass along the help she’s received.
“My physical therapists have told me I could probably skip a semester because I know all the basics of the taping and stretching for everything,” Devan said. “I’m halfway there.”
June Ferrell said the family has been grateful to watch Devan live out her dreams, especially after what she heard doctors say when her daughter was a week old.
“With about 8 or 9 surgeries we can give you a girl that can jump rope in the backyard,” they said.
It’s safe to say Devan exceeded everyone’s expectations.
“I did way more than that,” Devan said.