PRINCETON — The last official stop in the year-long reign of Miss West Virginia is something that is dear to her heart.
Madeline Collins of Princeton will spend two days next week at the 29th annual Dr. Bill Neches Heart Camp for Kids, in association with UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
“I am so excited,” she said last week about the upcoming visit. “It may be one of the highlights of the year.”
Collins, a Princeton High School and West Virginia University graduate who turned 24 years old on June 4, will visit the camp and work with children who have major congenital heart problems.
She can relate to them as few adults can.
Collins also has a serious heart condition, tetralogy of fallot, a rare congenital issue that has already meant three open-heart surgeries and spending a lot of her childhood in hospitals.
The condition is a combination of four congenital abnormalities. The four defects include a ventricular septal defect (VSD), pulmonary valve stenosis, a misplaced aorta and a thickened right ventricular wall (right ventricular hypertrophy).
“I will have to have another one (surgery),” she said, explaining that she had a total valve replacement when she was 14 and was given an estimated time frame when she would need further surgery. “We have exceed that amount (of time). It will happen sooner than later, but we will wait until the doctor tells me it’s needed.”
She will share her story with the children at the camp, and it’s a story that is inspirational and shows how having a serious medical condition does not necessarily mean dreams can’t come true.
Collins, whose platform for the year has been mental health, realized a dream when she was crowned Miss West Virginia last June, but it was one she didn’t know she had at first.
“I’m not a pageant girl,” she said. “I just love to dance.”
The chance to perform was the initial motivation, but once she became involved and started winning pageants she understood that just maybe she could do it.
“I don’t always look the part (of a pageant competitor),” she said, and that created some doubts. “Those doubts quickly went away when I realized I am just as capable as anyone else.”
The self-confidence in her dancing was already in place and led to another dream coming true.
Studying at Princeton Dance Studio under Princeton teacher Janice Gunnoe, Collins, daughter of Steve and Mary Collins, said one of her dreams was to dance professionally and she accomplished that.
“I am a parade dancer at Walt Disney World,” she said of the part-time job she has had since 2017. “It’s a seasonal job and I love it.”
While she will continue dancing, in the fall she will focus on a career that involves her primary ambition: working with children.
Collins is enrolled in a master’s degree program in social work at Columbia University in New York City with a major that is a continuance of her undergraduate degree in child development.
The long-term career goal is to be a children’s life specialist in a hospital setting, helping children as well as their families through the experience.
“I will be a liaison with a health care team, making sure the child has no fears and walking them through their procedures,” she said. “I am incredibly passionate about this and I did extensive volunteer work as an undergraduate at WVU.”
Collins said she has “been there and done that,” so the experience is part of who she is.
“To waste that would be wrong,” she said of her experience, describing it as “the gift God has given me.”
Collins said she didn’t realize that during her reign she would also get the opportunity to work with the children at the camp.
“The camp reached out to me,” she said, explaining that people can call and have an appearance scheduled and the camp director read an article she had written about what happened to her
Keith McIntire, camp director, said that every year he likes to do something different at the camp.
“I just went on a Google search for famous people who have the condition,” he said. “Madeline popped up.”
McIntire thought since the states are so close Collins may be available.
“One thing turned into another and now she is coming for two days,” he said.
Between 20 and 30 of the 125 kids at the camp will have the same condition as Madeline.
“I have it as well,” McIntire said, adding that he was born without a pulmonary valve and the prognosis was not good when he first diagnosed at 9 months old.
“Once they diagnosed me, they put me on a pillow and handed me to my parents and they said, ‘Takehime home and love him,’” he said.
But he did survive and received one of the first pig’s valve used in pediatrics in 1975.
It was replaced with a mechanical valve in 1983.
McIntire said many of the kids at the camp are surviving with “unbelievable heart conditions,” and if they had born when the camp first started 29 years ago they would not have survived.
“It’s really amazing how far things (medical technology) has gone,” he said.
Regardless of the technology, though, kids need support and hope, and McIntire is convinced Collins is the person who can give them that.
“I think Madeline is going to be really inspirational to them,” he said.
Both McIntire and Collins agree that it’s important to stay active and lead a normal life, if the condition allows that with the proper treatment.
“I like winter sports,” he said, including skiing. “The whole key is being active. That has helped me.”
For Collins, the activities have been fast and furious during her reign, visiting at least half of the state’s counties as well as trips to other states, and a 10K run in Florida to support the Children’s Miracle Network, a fundraiser sponsored by Walt Disney World.
“My worlds collided at that race,” she said, referring to her loves of dancing and helping children.
The past year has been filled with many memorable moments, she said, “traveling to the hollows and counties, meeting children, teens, adults and making those relationships, making friends, meeting people and telling my story.”
It’s also been a year of personal growth.
“I have learned so much about myself…” she said. “I definitely learned to trust myself and trust those people close to me who support me and have my back.”
She also learned that one of the most memorable experiences was competing in the Miss America Pageant, held in September 2018 in Atlantic City, N.J.
“One of the greatest highlights and honors was to represent the Mountain State at Miss America, being on a national stage,” she said. “I can’t explain it, there are no words except to describe it as … otherworldly.”
As her reign winds down, it is fitting her last official visit will be at the camp.
“I know where they are sitting,” Collins said. “My relationship with my heart condition has evolved from being a hidden sign of weakness to a proud representation of my resilience and strength. I love nothing more than meeting young children with congenital heart defects, comparing our diagnoses, surgical histories, physical limitations, and our matching ‘zippers’ while always demonstrating my own pride and lack of shame in mine.”
Later this month, June 29, she will crown a new Miss West Virginia.
And before she starts on her advanced degree at Columbia this fall, she is returning to Walt Disney World for a summer of dancing, a passion she will not ignore.
“I love it too much,” she said.
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org