Grayson Sword is a 18-year-old high school senior and open-heart surgery survivor. At 13, she was diagnosed with a rare heart condition. Given almost no chance to survive, she lived, finding strength in compassion and resilience. Now 18, she's on a mission to raise compassion in the world.
Born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, Grayson grew up an avid athlete, participating in sports ranging from soccer to cross country to swimming. When she was thirteen, she fainted in gym class, prompting a cardiologist visit that resulted in a diagnosis of a congenital heart defect called Anomalous Left Coronary Artery from the Right Coronary Sinus. According to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, ALCA affects about .047% of the population and often leads to sudden cardiac death, especially in teenage athletes.
Grayson had never experienced heart pain prior to her fainting spell, so the news of her defect turned her world upside down. Faced with the prospect of death so early in life, “I went through a sort of midlife crisis at an early age, but I promised myself that if I survived I would choose to live more consciously, to consistently practice gratitude for the life that I suddenly realized was so precious and precarious.”
Grayson did just that. She has spent the last four years learning how to heal from physical, mental, and emotional trauma resulting from her diagnosis, open-heart surgery, and subsequent health complications. “I found that the most effective way of beginning to heal was through…art. My neighbor Claire, a professional artist, taught me to transfer my emotions onto canvas, letting the abstract brushes of paint tell the story of my trauma. Once I had created abstract acrylic backgrounds, I layered figures, tessellations, flowers, and—you guessed it—anatomical hearts, onto them.”
Continuing her healing process, Grayson found strength in connections with others, consciously practicing gratitude, the healing power of art, and most importantly, compassion. “What was most integral to my healing was one, simple word: compassion. Receiving it then deciding to extend it,” she says. Since her surgery, she has filled over 1,000 pages of gratitude journals, worked with a Nepal-based NGO called The Small World
to build schools for at-risk girls in rural Nepalese villages, served as a student ambassador for Students Shoulder-to-Shoulder
, a nonprofit whose mission is to inspire ethical leadership in high school students, and painted dozens of works delineating her healing.
In 2018, she and her classmates founded Camp Good Trouble, a summer camp on her school’s campus for marginalized children in Asheville. The camp focuses on inspiring kids to see their potential both in and out of the classroom by combining tutoring and traditional outdoor activities into a weeklong experience focusing on leadership and character development. She has also volunteered at a summer camp for children with congenital heart defects like hers.
Grayson believes that while pain is integral to the human condition, healing can be a collective experience if people extend compassion to their neighbors. Grayson has spoken publicly about her healing experience during her senior “chapel talk” speech
and at a TEDx gathering
in February 2019.
Grayson’s health complications have gradually improved over the years, and she is currently “the healthiest I have ever been,” playing competitive sports again and only visiting the cardiologist on yearly checkup visits. She is interested in studying global health and public policy in college to learn how to better extend medical care into developing communities. She will attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a Morehead-Cain scholar next year, hoping to continue her mission of inspiring compassion in her generation.
Join us in conversation with this young font of wisdom and compassion!
Five Questions with Grayson Sword
What Makes You Come Alive?
From the time I was little, I have believed in the power of a letter. It is one of the most genuine ways to remind someone you love them, so I make sure to write a few to friends and family each week. I have discovered little ways of extending compassion in the past few years, and I have made it a goal to integrate them into my life. This world can always use more positive energy! In terms of leisure, I love to hike the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are only a short drive from my hometown. Breathing in the mountain air, traversing the trails in search of new species of flowers, and basking in the sunshine fills my soul. There is nothing better than a genuine laughing fit, too.
Pivotal turning point in your life?
January 14th, 2015the day I was diagnosed with my congenital heart defect. My doctors told me I should have died on the day I fainted, but, with open-heart surgery, I would have another chance at life. From that moment on, I realized the value of the life I had been given and resolved to make it count through service to others. There is a Mark Twain quote that says, "the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why." January 14th was my "why" day.
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
When I was in the cardiac ICU, barely 24 hours after surgery, the only food that sounded appetizing to my medicated stomach was vanilla soft-serve ice cream. The hospital cafeteria didn't have it, so my favorite nurse took three dollars out of her wallet, walked to a separate cafeteria, and bought it for me during her lunch break. The compassion of those three dollars extends far beyond their monetary value.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
I hope to one day return to Nepal and volunteer again with The Small World, the nonprofit I worked with during the summer of 2017. That and traveling to France!
One-line Message for the World?
While pain is universal, healing is collective.