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Prize-winner is picture perfect: Child's recovery from birth defect is captured by Judsonia photographer

Jacob Wells, 3, shows off the award-winning photo of himself taken by Taylor Made Photography in Judsonia. Jacob was born with a rare congenital heart defect, but is progressing through a series of surgeries. His mother, Shari Wells, had the photo taken to demonstrate that children with disabilities could live happy lives. (Philip Holsinger/The Daily Citizen)

A miracle has occurred, and Shari Wells has the picture to prove it.

The photo is of her three-year old son Jacob, who is simply laughing, holding his hands beside his head in gleeful abandon. A closer look reveals Jacob's trach - a breathing tube placed in his neck, which connects to a ventilator to help him breath.

Taken by Kevin Taylor at Taylor-Made Photography in Judsonia, the photo won first prize in a nationwide baby and child photo contest sponsored by Miller's Professional Imaging, a photo processing lab in Pittsburg, Kansas. Taylor's was one of 4,500 photos entered in the contest, and took first place in the kids with special needs category.

It is a snapshot of a remarkable recovery.

Jacob was born with Tetralogy of Fallot with Absent Pulmonary Valve, a rare congenital heart defect which also damages the child's lungs and upper airway. Mortality rates are extremely high.

But Jacob was born into fortunate circumstances. Shari Wells is a registered nurse who was working at White County Medical Center and was able to quit her job to work full-time on her son's behalf. And just prior to Jacob's birth, Dr. Jonathan Drummond Webb, an expert in pediatric and congenital cardiac surgery, had moved to work at Little Rock's Children's Hospital.

Still, the past three years have been grueling. Jacob has had seven surgeries, including two major open-heart surgeries and an operation on his diaphragm. He spent more than half his first 10 months in the hospital.

Doctors decided that Jacob needed to be placed on a ventilator in order to help him breathe, with the hope that with assistance his lungs would develop to the point where he'd eventually be able to breath without him. When he was eight months old, on Sept. 11, 2001, the trach was placed in his throat.

Over time, Jacob was weaned off the ventilator and accompanying suction machine, although he became so familiar with their use that he began playfully suctioning his Winnie-the-Pooh doll, which Wells thoughtfully had outfitted with a trach of his own.

Jacob stopped using the ventilator completely in January, and the trach tube was removed earlier this month. But as she scheduled the removal operation, Wells decided to have some pictures taken.

"I wanted to show that having a trach isn't such an awful thing," she said. "Even some of the residents and nurses think of a child with a trach as just a terrible situation, but he can be happy as any other child."

Wells borrowed some props from her doctors and went over to Taylor-Made, the same studio that had photographed her wedding to her husband Jeffery. While Taylor snapped photos, Wells came across some brochures advertising the baby contest, and suggested they enter Jacob's shots. Taylor chose two pictures, but Wells convinced him to add one more to the submission - the winning photo.

"I took Jacob down Children's Hospital to get the trach hole closed," recalled Wells. "And we were packing up and getting ready to leave the parking lot when Kevin called and said we won the contest."

Taylor credits Jacob for the award.

"I just did what I normally do," said Taylor. "Jacob did all the cute stuff."

Taking photos of special needs kids, he said, involves understanding them as exactly that - kids.

"The common thread is they're still kids, even if they're sick or have a disability. They're not bogged down by all that stuff we carry around with us. They're all about playing, laughing and loving.

"I don't try to hide [their disabilities]," he continued. "I want a realistic photo and to try to show them as they are, not a fake pose or in a setting they wouldn't normally be in. The biggest challenge is focusing on a moving target, and Jacob is full of energy, bouncing all over the floor."

Thursday, Jacob was as energetic as ever, jumping around Taylor's studio, grabbing at the framed picture of himself, playing with toys.

"He loves Barney and he likes trains," said Wells. The two have come together for an upcoming trip for Jacob and his family sponsored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"They're sending us to central Florida," she said. "Barney's at Universal, and trains are at Disney World."

Make-A-Wish sponsors such trips for children with life-threatening diseases, and pays all costs, including out-of-pocket expenses.

The photo contest brings $2,000 in prize money, which Wells said will be put to extras along the road.

Jacob, oblivious to the discussion, zoomed a wooden train set back and forth on Taylor's studio floor.

"It looks like we'll have to get some Thomas the Train tracks," said Wells, smiling broadly.