The dress should be long, to the floor. All the girls at Tarpon Springs High are getting long dresses this year, Stacey Karavokiros told the designer. It should have halter straps and something sparkly, maybe sequins or beads.
The back should dip low, she said. The front has to be high.
"At least high enough," she said, "to cover my scar."
Stacey's scar creeps an inch above the collar of her Hollister T-shirt. It slices down her thin chest like a ropy zipper, all the way to her waist.
Prom is Saturday. The dress is just about ready. But on Monday, Stacey was in the hospital, sick and sad, wondering if she'll get to wear it.
• • •
A week after Stacey was born on the Greek island of Kalymnos, doctors in Athens told her parents to let her die. Her lips were blue and she struggled to breathe. X-rays showed her heart was missing a chamber.
Stacey's mother, Irene, refused to give up. She flew her infant to London where Stacey had her first open heart surgery. At 12, Stacey had a heart transplant. When her frail body began rejecting that heart in 2005, Irene moved Stacey and her four younger brothers and sisters to Tarpon Springs to be near family — and All Children's Hospital. Stacey's dad stayed in Greece to run the family rock quarry.
Stacey received her second heart transplant that September. Since then she has been taking 12 different pills, twice a day, to help her body work with its new organ. She's 17 now.
"She's had this second heart almost as long as the first one," Stacey's mom said in early April. "In one month — by prom — she will have had this one longer."
• • •
Stacey had the perfect prom night planned.
On April 10, she went to the International Academy of Design & Technology in Tampa to meet with designer Katy Long. Stacey brought along pages she had torn from Vogue and Cosmo, trying to piece together her ideal prom dress.
"I'm so excited," Stacey told Katy.
Katy, a senior at the academy, had met Stacey through the American Heart Association. This year, as part of a campaign called "Go Red," the Heart Association teamed up with the school to design dresses for 15 women who have survived heart disease. Katy made a short, flirty dress for Stacey — the youngest survivor.
When Katy heard Stacey couldn't afford a new gown for her prom, she offered to design Stacey's dream dress.
Now, a month before prom, Stacey and Katy were creating the dress together. Stacey had checked out of the hospital only two days earlier. Her body had been trying to reject her heart again. She was okay now, she said.
"I'll have your sketch done soon and you can come back for the fitting," Katy told Stacey. "Don't worry — we'll have everything ready by prom."
• • •
By mid April, the group Stacey planned to go to the prom with had swelled to 28 teenagers. Stacey didn't have a date.
She said she didn't mind. Growing up, she couldn't run or play basketball or even dance like she wanted to. At least now she could go to the prom.
Stacey's aunt took her shoe shopping; they found fabulous silver pumps that Stacey's mom said were much too tall. Katy e-mailed Stacey a sketch of the dress. They agreed to get together the next week, so Stacey could try it on.
The night before they were scheduled to meet, Stacey crept into her mom's bedroom. "Something's not right," she said.
• • •
Instead of modeling her red dress, Stacey spent the next afternoon in a green hospital gown. Electrodes were taped across her chest; IV tubes snaked from her arms. Doctors shot steroids into her, bloating her size 4 body into a plus-size.
"Even if I do make it to prom," she told her mother, "I won't be able to fit in that dress." The dance was two weeks away.
Her friends came to All Children's, hovering over her bed. They filled her in on who was going with whom.
One of Stacey's best friends called. She was calling on behalf of a boy — someone Stacey knew a little bit — who wanted to take her to the prom.
"Yes," she told her friend, she would like to go with him. "But I don't know if I'll be able to."
• • •
The dress is long, to the floor. It has halter straps and a princess waist and is made of soft, stretchy rayon — nail polish red. The gathered bodice is high enough to hide Stacey's scar.
She hasn't seen it yet. She's still in the hospital, struggling to hold on to her heart.
"There's no way to tell why her body is rejecting it again," her mom said. "They're pumping all sorts of steroids into her, and those are affecting her kidneys, causing fluid to build up around her lungs. Her heart has been damaged, but the doctors say it's recoverable."
Last week, Stacey was counting the days until prom, chatting with friends on her cell phone. On Monday, she was too tired to take calls. She told her younger sister to tell her date she can't go on Saturday night.
Katy promised to finish the dress by Friday, just in case.
For so long, Stacey's mom said, prom meant everything to her.
"Now she's realizing what's really important," her mom said. It's not that she doesn't want to go to prom. It's just that she wants to go home.
Maybe, her mom said, she'll still get to wear that red dress. Graduation is June 4.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at
[email protected] or (727) 893-8825.