PALM HARBOR — At her high school graduation party, Zarin Hamid seemed to float across the floor in her evening gown. She wore red, a color symbolic of love and the heart — fitting for a young woman who endured four open-heart surgeries and a heart transplant by the time she had reached fourth grade.
"Zarin pushed herself even when she had no energy," said Syama Hamid, her mother. "Before her heart transplant, she couldn't eat. Her lips were purple and her fingertips blue."
And yet, through sheer force of will, she's graduating from Palm Harbor University High School.
Zarin was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a congenital condition in which the left side of the heart is underdeveloped and cannot pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the body. For years, before undergoing the transplant in 2003, Zarin suffered from extreme shortness of breath, weakness and the inability to digest food.
"It's easier to give up, stay at home and let your dreams die than to go to school," Zarin said. "Despite my hardships and all that's been thrown against me, I keep trying to move forward."
Her recent graduation party at the Palm Harbor Community Activity Center brought in friends and educators who have been with her the whole way.
"We wanted to recognize all the people there for her when she was struggling," said her father, Ashar. "I am so impressed by Zarin's will, not to just live, but also to achieve in school."
Some of the guests had known Zarin since her kindergarten days at Oldsmar Elementary School.
Debbie (Morin) Manning has been a guidance counselor at the school for 16 years. She used to feed Zarin sips of a vanilla-flavored enriched drink when the other children ran out to physical education.
"She's always been strong," Manning said. "We saw her at her sickest before the transplant. She came to school every day. She wanted to be there."
Oldsmar Elementary principal David Schmitt said, "It was amazing how she maintained good grades and a good attitude. In all my 34 years of experience as a principal, she had the most physical challenges of any child."
Even after the transplant, Zarin faces challenges. For the rest of her life, she must adhere to a strict post-transplant regimen of diet, exercise and medications. She also struggles with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, and vocal cords that were damaged during the transplant. Zarin can only speak in a soft, whisper-like voice. But her determination speaks for itself.
She's humbled by the support her parents have given her throughout her life. She gets choked up talking about all they have done and still do.
"It's about attitude," said her mother. "No matter what health problem you're having, a positive attitude means you can manage your health and focus on education, which will take you far."
In August, Zarin begins classes at Saint Leo University, where she will live and major in psychology.
"Child life therapists helped me cope with my illness and hospital stays," she said. "I hope to give back. I know how the kids feel and think I can connect with them. I hope to become a child life therapist."
No one at the party doubted she will.
After a reading from the Koran, music and the aroma of home-cooked Pakistani food filled the air. The room overflowed with people Zarin had connected with over the years. But there were few dry eyes.
As the song Dog Days Are Over played, she greeted her young friends with a smile.
"I remember going on field trips in a wheelchair," she said. "Now I'm going off to college."