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Four-year-old Sean Walsh and his mom Ali Royal are at home in Largo following his heart transplant last month.

LARGO — In a world left in the shadows of coronavirus, one little boy’s story has proven to be a silver lining for teachers and students at Anona Elementary in Largo.

When four-year-old Sean Walsh first set foot in his prekindergarten class in August, neither he nor his teachers knew he would be there for such a short time.

Within just two short weeks, Sean would be transferred to Shands Hospital in Gainesville where he would be treated for congestive heart failure. Sean, who was born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, a congenital heart defect, had already undergone three heart surgeries in his short life.

Faced with the news that her little boy would need a new heart, his mother Ali Royal didn’t know what to expect.

“It was so surprising since he had done so well,” Royal said.

Sean would spend the next seven weeks at Shands.

A virtual classroom

Faced with an empty chair in their classroom, Sean’s teachers Julie Neibert and Jen Bryant came up with the idea of including Sean in classroom activities, even when he was 150 miles away.

The teachers decided to bring him back to the classroom virtually, using the digital platform Microsoft Teams, and set up two times a day during the class’s circle time for Sean to participate.

That inclusion has meant the world to Sean, Royal said.

“He loves it. We are so grateful for that,” Royal said. “He feels included. He’s so excited to see his friends.”

Neibert and Bryant also sent cards from his classmates and videos to Sean during his time in the hospital.

“Just to know he’s been thought of all the time while he’s been in the hospital and at home, and to be included in the greeting circle and the literacy circle by his little school mates and his amazing teachers is just very comforting as a mom,” Royal said. “You don’t ever want your child to feel left out or left behind, so it’s a great feeling.”

A special delivery

On Oct. 7, just after 4 a.m., Royal got the news.

Having waited less than a week on the transplant list, a heart had been found for Sean.

“He had his surgery later in the day,” she said. “He got his miracle gift.

“There are no words,” Royal continued. “You hear that people are waiting four months, eight months, a year, a year and a half. I wasn’t expecting that call so soon. I was just over the moon.”

Although happy her son had a second chance at life, Royal said her joy was also tempered with sadness. Knowing that some other child lost his life so that Sean might live was heartbreaking for Royal.

“If I could thank them for the unselfish gift of life that they gave to my sweet boy, I would in a heartbeat,” she said. “How can you even say thank you? Thank you doesn’t seem nearly enough to have my little boy back.”

Coming home

Sean and his family returned to Largo Oct. 29, and his home, which had been silent and still, is now filled with the echoes of laughter and energy.

“He’s been doing really well and we are grateful for that,” Royal said of her son’s recovery. “I’m so overjoyed with his laughter running through the house.

“His spirit to live is just absolutely amazing.”

Now that he is feeling better, Sean has also returned to the classroom — well, at least virtually.

Royal said the love and acceptance Sean’s teachers have shown him has meant a lot to the family over the last few months.

“Honestly, they have been amazing,” she said of Niebert and Bryant. “If I could get those teachers every year, we would be so grateful. They connected him with his class. They connected him with his school.

“He was only there two weeks, and they made him feel like he is a part of the Anona family,” Royal continued. “His friends, his teachers love him and he loves them. We are just so happy about that.”