Heart patient becomes IMS reporter for Riley
Riding to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway helicopter is a perk of the privileged.
Bailey Hunsberger feels her good fortune is abundant as she hitches a ride on the IU Health Lifeline Helicopter as it heads to the track. Eyewitness News tagged along as Hunsberger started her first day as "Riley's Roving Track Reporter."
The trip to the track takes just three minutes from the downtown heliport. Hunsberger documents the view with her smartphone.
"It's amazing, an amazing, amazing experience," said Hunsberger.
The helicopter lands at the track hospital, and she steps inside for an interview with race car driver Ed Carpenter.
He reveals the hardest thing about competing in the Indianapolis 500 is maintaining focus.
"The month is long. We are out here at least 12 hours a day, so it's really taxing mentally and physically," Carpenter said.
Bailey nods. She knows about all about lengthy challenges.
"I am 21 and I have had eight surgeries now total," Hunsberger said.
She was just three days old for that first surgery on her failing heart. Her journey with a defective heart was featured in a documentary, "Heart to Heart."
Actor Patrick Dempsey, known for his role as a physician on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," served as a producer, host and narrator for the production.
Dempsey shows you a round-faced 12-year-old seventh grader who reveals her anxiety.
"As you get closer to the surgery, you get a little more concerned every day," Hunsberger said.
The documentary explains how Riley Heart Surgeon Mark Turrentine used a device called the Berlin Heart to temporarily take over the job of pumping blood so Hunsberger's heart could keep going.
At the time, it was in use in Europe, but did not have US Federal Drug Administration approval. Hunsberger became the third patient at Riley to receive the implant.
Hunsberger says people who saw "Heart to Heart" are always shocked to see she is now a woman.
"That has been almost eight years now so I'm definitely a little bit older and I've grown up a lot," said Hunsberger.
She is proud that she could testify to an FDA panel and share her experience with the Berlin Heart.
"They were very excited to hear my story and ultimately got it approved," Hunsberger said.
Bailey has had two heart valve replacement surgeries. She just got a new pacemaker last week. The scar is still sore, but she is not complaining.
Instead, she patiently waits in the 80-degree heat for a two-lap ride with a professional driver around the track. She climbs into the front seat and laughs as speeds top 128 miles an hour.
"It was a lot faster than I was anticipating, but definitely very fun," Hunsberger said.
As she walks the track, looking for stories she spots race car driver Helio Castroneves.
"Oh my gosh, I love him. He's like one of my favorites," Hunsberger gushed.
She stands cautiously to the side, reluctant to approach, until she is reminded it's now her job to make contact. Hunsberger slowly steps forward, makes eye contact and waits. Then once he looks her way, she asks, "How does one prepare for the Indianapolis 500?"
"Try to expect the unexpected, because it is a long race there are so many things that can go wrong," Castroneves said.
Hunsberger will be back reporter at the track on Pole Day, May 18th; Carb Day, May 24th and on Race Day, May 26th.
With all this excitement, does she ever think about her heart, or what is next?
"Yep, all the time, but I'm hoping it will behave," said Hunsberger.
Hunsberger is studying microbiology, and just finished her junior year at Indiana University in Bloomington.
She knows it's likely the day will come when her name will be added to the heart transplant waiting list. She says she will focus on that when the time comes.
Now, she is savoring what has turned out to be a remarkable day at the Speedway. But that's not unusual for someone has overcome odds from day one.