HEALY- When Briar Ash McGanty smiled, her whole face lit up. She was such a happy baby. When she died unexpectedly of heart failure on May 1, it shattered her family.

The local community embraced Briar’s family— Tony McGanty, Elizabeth Loatwall and 3-year-old Emy —and more than 150 people of all ages showed up to celebrate Briar’s life on a sunny Saturday morning. They came on bicycles, in strollers and wagons, little ones in the arms of parents, to participate in an impromptu 2.4-mile walk through the neighborhood.

“Seeing the community come together was heartwarming,” said Elizabeth Loatwall, Briar’s mother. “It meant more to us than they would ever know and we can feel the love from everyone.”

Briar was just 10 months old. She was recently diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick, making it harder for the heart to pump blood. Her parents discovered she would likely need a heart transplant in the future.

Briar had stopped eating and was losing weight, so she had a feeding tube inserted in her nose that allowed her to gain weight. Doctors suggested Briar receive a second tube, in her belly, as more of a long-term solution.

“We went down there, did the surgery, and the first two days she did okay,” Loatwall said. “Then, you could tell she wasn’t feeling well.”

After doctors removed fluid from her heart and lungs, Briar bounced back to her happy self.

But when the cardiologist checked in on her, his diagnosis was dire. The baby needed to be medivaced to Seattle immediately, he advised. But that never happened, because 30 minutes later, Briar died of heart failure.

It was a shock.

Community members reached out immediately to the pre-school teacher and her family. Tony McGanty works at Golden Valley Electric Association.

“Since Briar has died, this show of love from everybody, it’s more than I could ever dream,” Loatwall said. “The messages on my phone, my Facebook page, voicemails. The first few days were really hard. I might not be able to answer back. But I read and re-read them many times.

“We’re hurting but I feel like the whole community is hurting with us,” she added. “I love everybody here so much.”

Healy resident Tina Graham reached out as soon as she learned of Briar’s diagnosis. Her son Caleb, now 20, also has a heart condition. She remembered all the anxiety and fear her family went through when he was diagnosed so many years ago.

“I’m a heart mom too,” she told Loatwall. She had only imagined worst-case scenarios that Briar’s family was now experiencing.

“She wrapped me in this love,” Loatwall said. “I’m so thankful.”

Graham organized the walk to celebrate Briar’s life, with enthusiastic support from many others.

“I want to celebrate that she was with them for 10 months, not that it was only 10 months, because that is way too short,” she said.

Homeowners decorated their driveways along the route with balloons and bubbles and hearts and signs of support.

Not everyone who came to the walk knows the family personally. Nevertheless, they joined in. A tourist driving by the Tri-Valley Community Center during the walk stopped to see what was going on and added to the donation jar.

Organizers collected more than $3,000 in donations (and more donations are coming in). Half will go to the family and half will be donated to the American Heart Association in Briar’s name.

When Loatwall thinks about her daughter now, she remembers her smile.

“One of the biggest things about Briar was her smile,” she said. “Her smile was so big, her cheeks would rise, her eyes would squint. She did that kind of smile with her whole face. She was always happy.

“Whenever Tony would come home from work, she would light up.”

Community support continues as the family struggles to get Briar to her final resting place at Valley View Memorial Cemetery.

“We came across a problem with digging her grave because the ground is frozen,” Loatwall said.

Friends are taking turns going to the cemetery and digging the grave, letting the ground thaw, then digging some more.

“Where my home is, I can see the cross from the cemetery, so I can look out our window and see where Briar is,” she said.

A briar, by the way, is a wild rose with a thorny bush. It’s a name Loatwall always liked. And Briar was actually Sleeping Beauty’s original name, before it was changed to Aurora, Loatwall noted.

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at kcapps@newsminer.com. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.