At 14, Pullman’s Jonathon Parker underwent open heart surgery.

Shortly after the successful operation, depression set in.

His poor mental state led to harming himself, which resulted in “constant trips” to the emergency room for stitches.

Now 17, Parker’s life has taken a turn for the better, which he attributes to a year spent in a therapeutic boarding school in northwestern Montana, where he learned to take charge of his life.

A lifelong Boy Scout, Parker completed his Eagle Scout project this year, is working toward attaining his GED diploma, works part-time at Cougar Country Drive In and plans to start college next year to become a nurse.

Perhaps most importantly, he said his mental health is great.

Parker, who was born in Spokane and raised in Moscow and Pullman, was born with coarctation of the aorta, a type of congenital heart defect that involves the narrowing of the large aorta blood vessel that leads from the heart.

He said doctors discovered the heart defect when he was a baby, but the issue had little effect on him during his childhood. However, a couple months before his yearly heart check up when he was 14, Parker said he noticed he was getting tired easily, had a great deal of headaches and had extremely high blood pressure — all symptoms of the heart defect.

So doctors determined surgery was required.

He said he takes blood pressure medication, and if he gets a headache during physical activity he knows he needs to take a break.

Parker said he and his doctors believe the heart surgery jump-started his depression because studies show a link between open heart surgery and depression. He said he had no depression symptoms prior to the surgery.

Parker said his depression escalated to such a level that his therapist recommended he seek treatment at Turning Winds, a residential treatment center and academic institute in Montana for teens battling substance abuse, mental illness or other behavioral problems.

The school is about one mile from Yaak, an unincorporated community 37 miles north of Libby in the Kootenai National Forest.

Parker stayed there from about May 2018 to April 2019.

“It was hard at first because I didn’t want to be there, and after a couple months of being there, when I finally accepted, ‘hey, I’m not leaving until I’m better,’ that’s when I actually started to help myself and started to change myself,” Parker said.

He said staff members were helpful because some of them had experienced the same mental health problems he faced.

During his Montana stay, Parker completed his Eagle Scout project.

Adults fell trees and cut them into short logs on the boarding school property for Parker and a small group to split and stack the three cords of wood.

They delivered the firewood to a former Turning Winds staff member who has cystic fibrosis, diabetes and other health problems. Parker said the man had to quit Turning Winds because of his poor health.

“I felt like I really need to help this guy out because I have this big opportunity to help out the community,” Parker said.

He said he earned his Eagle Scout rank, the highest rank attainable in Boy Scouts of America.

After earning his GED diploma, Parker said he plans on enrolling at Spokane Falls Community College in Pullman to get his associate’s degree and then possibly transfer to Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston for nursing.

He said he wants to be a registered nurse and work in the emergency department. His dream is to work on an emergency service helicopter.

Garrett Cabeza can be reached at (208) 883-4631, or by email to

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