By Donald Wittkowski
Peyton Laricks was suited up in her Bishop McHugh Regional Catholic School basketball uniform on Saturday for a big game against local rival Ocean City.
“I like to play basketball,” the blonde, pint-sized, third-grader exclaimed, punctuating her remarks with an adorable smile.
She also enjoys singing, dancing, acting, swimming and riding the surf on her boogie board during summer outings with her family on the 48th Street beach in Sea Isle City.
The fact that Peyton can do any of those things is a miracle. As she prepares to celebrate her 9th birthday on March 31, she continues to defy the odds by overcoming an often fatal birth defect called Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia, or CDH.
On Saturday night, her life was celebrated during a fundraiser at the Yacht Club of Sea Isle City that benefits the Peyton’s Promise charity. Now in its sixth year, the fundraiser was established by Peyton’s parents, Debbie and Dustin Laricks, of Sea Isle, to raise money for CDH research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Peyton’s Promise also raises money during an annual run-walk in Sea Isle. The ninth edition of the run-walk is scheduled for June 10. Peyton said she plans to run in the event for the first time this year.
Based on everything she has accomplished in her remarkable life so far, would anyone be surprised if she does run?
Through 2016, Peyton’s Promise had donated a total of $326,000 to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia from the two fundraisers. Dustin Laricks said the family hopes to raise an additional $60,000 this year.
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, or CHOP, is where Peyton was born on March 31, 2008. Most babies leave the hospital after only a few days. Peyton endured 88 days in the newborn intensive care unit, including 12 days on life support.
“There were times when they told us that she probably wouldn’t live,” Dustin Laricks recalled.
“They were brutally honest at CHOP,” Debbie Laricks added.
Debbie wasn’t even allowed to hold the medically fragile Peyton for six weeks. CDH leaves a hole in the diaphragm, allowing abdominal organs to migrate into the upper chest area and crowd out the lungs.
Peyton went through multiple surgeries to correct the birth defect, including having a Gore-Tex fabric patch placed on her diaphragm to cover the hole. She continues to wear the patch.
“So, the trick is putting back everything where it’s supposed to go and allowing the lungs to grow,” Dustin Laricks explained of the surgery.
Until Peyton was born, Dustin and Debbie Laricks had never heard of CDH. The condition occurs in about one in every 2,500 births and is fatal to about 50 percent of the babies who have it, the couple noted.
Even the children who survive CDH can have hearing and vision problems, learning disorders, brain damage and other lifelong health complications, they said.
“Not only by living is she beating the odds, but also having a long-term high quality of life is beating the odds,” Dustin Laricks said of his daughter.
Peyton faces no physical restrictions. She is allowed to run, play and do everything else a child of her age normally does.
She has a 10-year-old brother, Dustin, and a 6-year-old sister, Quinn. Her father, Dustin Laricks, 39, is in the real estate business. Her mother, Debbie Laricks, 40, teaches sixth grade English at Bishop McHugh Regional Catholic School in Cape May Court House.
Called extremely bright and bookwormish by her parents, Peyton is already thinking about following her mother into the teaching profession.
“I’d like to be a teacher,” she said, as her mother smiled proudly.
Asked if she would like to become an English teacher, just like her mother, she paused for a moment and replied, emphatically, “No, I want to be a math teacher.”
Her parents roared with laughter to show their approval.