March 28, 2017
On February 7, 2017, I celebrated 15 extra years of life; I am a heart transplant recipient.
Fifteen years ago, my donor’s family decided to share with me the greatest gift anyone could ask for: LIFE. Every day, I say a prayer and thank my donor’s family for this amazing blessing. I also often think about the people who have worked so tirelessly to keep my heart beating: my doctors.
A history of heart disease runs in my family. When my older sister was just 13 years old, a team of doctors at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital diagnosed her with restrictive cardiomyopathy. A heart transplant was performed on October 5, 1993.
Although I was only 7 years old at the time, I remember clearly understanding what was going on as I listened to the conversations the doctors had with my overwhelmed and worried parents. The doctors helped my parents feel at ease during a time when there was so much unknown.
Eight years later, when I was a sophomore in high school, I became ill with flu-like symptoms. I was admitted to the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, where I too was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy.
My team of doctors at the Clinic was awesome. I was added to the national heart transplant donor list in January 2002. Imagine being a teenager and understanding that if you do not receive a heart transplant, you may not live to see your 16th birthday. My doctors were very transparent with me; something I will always respect and admire.
As I waited for a heart to become available, my health deteriorated rapidly. I was seeing doctors around the clock who were trying their hardest to iron out the best treatment plan and keep my health steady until a donor heart was found. When I tell my transplant story, I always share that, although confined to a bed for most of the time I was waiting for a transplant, I never worried that the worst could happen. My doctors helped ease any fears I had.
The greatest call of all
Just days before I received “the call,” one of my doctors came in to tell me that in order to prolong my heart until transplant, I would receive a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD). He sat with me and carefully explained what the LVAD is intended to do and outlined the side effects of the device. He continued to give me hope.
On February 7, 2002, I received the greatest call of all! My doctor called me personally to let me know that, just after noon that day, I would receive a new heart. I will never forget that moment.
My life was so carefully handled during the 8-hour surgery. I can never thank the medical team enough for their care during such a serious, lifesaving surgery. I will never take for granted the time that my medical team dedicated to removing my deteriorated heart and transplanting the beautifully pumping organ that, 15 years later, is still beating in my body.
Road to recovery
The road to recovery after transplantation was long for me. Although I was out of the ICU after just 2 days, I struggled with rejection. The numerous cardiac catheterizations and biopsies I endured to get the immunosuppressant drugs and other medications just right were trying at times. I spent about 5 months in and out of the hospital. During this time, I gained an additional level of respect for those on the front line of my transplant journey.
Today, I can proudly say that I am 15 years out. I am still treated by an amazing medical team at the Cleveland Clinic. My doctor and transplant coordinator have provided wonderful care and open communication over the years. My transplant team is among my biggest cheerleaders. The relationship we have built over the years speaks volumes. I am more than just a number to the team; I am a person who needs individualized care.
Every day, these doctors work countless hours to ensure that people like me receive exceptional medical care. I want to take this time to truly thank each of them for all of the care and support they have provided me and my family during the years. Without my donor’s family and every wonderful doctor with whom I have interacted through my journey, these 15 additional years of life would not have been possible!
Thank you for all that you do.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons.
The STS mission is to advance cardiothoracic surgeons’ delivery of the highest quality patient care through collaboration, education, research, and advocacy.