When I was in residency, I worked in the pediatric intensive care unit taking care of a young boy whose heart was failing. He was on the transplant list... waiting….and waiting. I guess I should say his parents were waiting because he was just a toddler. A very tired, sickly little boy. I watched him worsen each day and there was not a thing I could do. We would tinker with his IV medications but ultimately it felt like we were just going through the motions since no medicine was strong enough to fix his little broken heart.
Just when I was sure that he wouldn’t make it another day, the family received news that he’d gotten his new heart. He was whisked off to the operating room and hours later he returned to me a much different kiddo. His cheeks were no longer deathly pale and within a day, he was sitting up and chatting to anyone who walked into his room.
I felt like I witnessed a miracle.
I don’t know what it would feel like to live through this experience…but I’ve met someone that has. Julie has agreed to answer some of my questions...
Can you tell me what led to you needing a heart transplant?
Heart problems run in my family on my Father’s side. On July 11, 2012 I was having back pain between my shoulders and I got sick and decided to drive myself to my family doctor. While I was driving it felt like someone was pulling on my arms. I thought I had food poisoning. My doctor sent me to the Emergency room and they ran some tests. I was having a heart attack that they call the widow maker. Then had a stint put in.
A widowmaker is a term for a particularly lethal heart attack. It involves 100% blockage of a critical artery call the left anterior descending artery. Blocking flow to this artery means the heart muscle itself is not getting oxygen.
A woman may not have the same heart attack symptoms as a man. They are more likely to have fatigue, sweating or nausea- symptoms that they may overlook.
Can you explain how it felt while you were waiting?
At first I thought I was going to be ok. Then after 6 months, my health went downhill quickly. Then I was so sick- I felt like I was going to die. I realized then that someone had to die for me to get a heart. My skin was gray and I had lost a lot of weight. It was the least amount that I've ever weighed. The blood flow to my heart was really bad and I was told my heart was only working about 10 %. The lower part of my heart was already dead. I was really scared.
How long did you have to wait for a new heart?
I did okay for a little over 2 years. I was sent to Medical City of Dallas in August of 2015 for further testing. They had to put a pic line in for medication 24/7 to keep me alive. And then, when I was still not getting any better, they started thinking about a Heart or Heart/Lung transplant. Medical City could not do a Heart/Lung transplant at that time. I was to transferred to UT Southwestern Medical Center. They could do both if I needed it. They did more testing and about 6 weeks later I received the call for the New Heart
What was your worst day?
Being told that my heart was not working. I thought that I would die before I received a new heart.
How long was the surgery?
We were told that the surgery would take 4 to 6 hours. From the time the heart arrived at the hospital, the Doctors had to make sure that everything match. Then from the start of the surgery, it took 1 hour and 45 minutes before they notified my husband that they were closing.
Do you know anything about the donor?
Between the Hospital donor center and a letter from her Mother, I learned some details. What I know is that she was from Corpus Christi and was in her 20’s. They called her Teeny. She helped with homeless people, was in sports, going to college, engaged, and had 2 dogs. Two weeks before she died she told her Mother that if she died, she wanted to donate everything she could because she would not need it. She helped eight people live through donating. I still am waiting to meet her Mother but I am waiting on her to be ready to meet me.
I think if I went through this experience, I would be paranoid. Do you worry about your heart a lot? Do you check your pulse all the time?
I do not feel paranoid. I am just thankful to be alive. I don’t worry about my heart because I feel I got the perfect one for me. I worry more about my medication, is it working correctly? I need to make sure that I order it in time so I don’t miss any dosages.
Tell me about the medication you take to avoid having your body reject your new heart.
I take about 45 pills a day. Two different Anti-rejection (cyclosporine and Mycophenolate sodium), Prednisone, Sildenafil, which I will take the rest of my life. Bactrim, Torsemide, AmLODlpine, Aspirin 81 mg, Atorvastatin, ezetimibe, Protonix, gabapentin, Several different Vitamins, Some of the medications are more than once a day.
What is something you can do now that you could not before?
Before transplant I could not walk a block without stopping several times- so I spent most of my time at home doing nothing. I had to stay away from people due to not getting an infection. I had to wear a mask when I went outside. After the transplant I wanted to climb a mountain. Since the transplant I went to Broken Bow, Oklahoma and climbed a small mountain! I've gone horseback riding and zip lining. I went to San Antonio to visit family, a waterfall tour in Oklahoma. I-Fly in Frisco. Mostly I enjoy spending time with my family and living life.
When I think about someone with a transplant a lot of things go through my mind. Mostly I think- what an amazing second chance. What do you want people to know about your experience?
Sometimes it does not seem real, but I know it is because I have the scars to show. It is a Miracle to still be here. I am glad I received a second chance. I have a great family and with God I know he has a plan for me. It would be better not to have to have this experience but If you are forced into it like I was- you have to be willing to fight the fight. Eat healthier, exercise, and take every day as a blessing.
What do you look forward to in life?
Making a difference in someone’s life. Taking it one step at a time. Eating healthier, being more active. The most important part of my life is to live it to the fullest with my family and friends.
Just a short note about the pictures from Julie.
The picture by the fence was my normal self. The one on the bench is shortly before transplant. The one with the waterfall is now. 80 lbs over weight.
The side effects of Julie's medications are fluid retention, increased appetite and weight gain. So if you assumed that her weight caused the heart attack, that is not true. She gained the weight after her transplant. And as you can tell by the interview, she's still fighting that battle...but what's really remarkable is how this experience has really emphasized what is important to her.
Taking each Day as the Blessing it is.