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Child hero helps mother and brother during life-threatening events

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It’s not every day that a child witnesses a mother collapse or a sibling suffer a severe allergic reaction. Jackson Payne, a 9-year-old parishioner of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg, experienced both situations this past April. Despite the scary situation, Jackson was able to muster the courage to act and save lives.

The first incident with his mother occurred April 9 after a normal school day at Conway Elementary in Stafford. Jackson and his brother Zachary got off at their bus stop and were shocked to find their mother, Jennifer Payne, waiting for them.

Since March, Jennifer had been suffering from a lifelong heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot. Doctors confirmed that Jennifer needed a valve replacement but there was a long wait for surgery. All she could do was stay home and rest as her condition worsened. But she has never been one to sit idle.

“I was like, I’m feeling OK, I would like to surprise the kids,” said Jennifer. “I got up to the bus stop and I was feeling OK, but tired.”

But half-way back home Jennifer realized something was wrong and had to ask Jackson for help. Once they got home she collaped halfway up the stairs to her room.

What happened after is a bit fuzzy for Jennifer who started drifting in and out of consciousness. She managed to get her parents on the phone who live in Massachusetts. They realized Jennifer needed help and told Jackson to find someone.

All Jackson remembers after that is sprinting down the street to the house of one of his brother’s friends.

Chris Patrignani and his family were in the middle of celebrating his son’s birthhday when he heard the doorbell ring. He found a breathless Jackson on his doorstep who calmly explained what had happened. Chris immediately accompanied Jackson back to the house where Chris was able to convince Jennifer to call her husband and then 911.

With the ambulance on its way, Patrignani said that Jackson’s attention turned to his brother. He was worried Zachary would be scared by the paramedics. Jackson got his brother ready and led him down the street to Patrignani’s house where they waited until their father Will arrived. 

Patrignani was impressed by Jackson’s actions, espcesially in a time where house phones are rare and calling on a password protected smartphone can be difficult.

“He definitely did the right thing, finding an adult,” said Patrignani. “I can only hope that my son would act similarly.”

Jennifer was admitted to Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg for a week before being fast-tracked to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for open-heart surgery April 18.

Just three days after Jennifer’s successful surgery, the family experienced a second dose of Jackson’s heroism.

Jackson’s 6-year-old brother Zachary is severely allergic to tree nuts, something the family has known since before he was 3. Jennifer keeps an EpiPen on hand, but so far had never used it.

Jackson took an interest in his brother’s condition early on and took it upon himself to keep a sharp eye on anything Zachary wanted to put in his mouth during school functions or at friends’ houses.

“Jackson would be right behind him asking the adult constantly, ‘Does that have tree nuts in it?’ ” said Jennifer.

His attentiveness was lifesaving after Jennifer’s surgery. The stress of the past weeks had taken its toll on the boys’ sleep schedule prompting Jennifer’s mom, Jane Balestracci, to give Zachary half a tablet of Melatonin, a hormone that helps sleep regulation.

“She had bought Melatonin that was the same brand we usually get, but not the exact same type,” said Jennifer. “This one had coconut.”

Within seconds, Zachary started aggressively itching his leg, behavior Jackson recognized as abnormal even for his energetic sibling.

“Jackson was amazing,” said Jennifer. He went over to the medicine and screamed, ‘This has nuts in it.’ I was really slow at that time, having just had surgery, so he ran and brought me the EpiPen.

Zachary’s reaction was neutralized quickly and he was taken to the hospital by his father where he made a full recovery.

Jackson’s fourth-grade religions education teacher at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Norka Miller feels that God helped him through both situations.

“I completely feel that God helped Jackson. For a child of such a young age, to be calm and take action to help others is not the norm,” said Miller. “Other kids would have cried and gotten desperate.” 

Jackson was honored by Stafford Sheriff David Decatur and County Fire Chief Joseph Cardello in a special ceremony at the sheriff’s office in May.

“Even though sometimes it might be scary,” said the rising fifth-grader. “Try to do something to help.”


Kassock is a freelancer from Fredericksburg.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019