The silence of the night was suddenly broken when the phone rang. It was an official from Vanderbilt who told Debbie that a heart had become available for her. She woke her husband and told him it’s time to go. Her bags were always packed and ready to go and the car was kept full of gas. This night, however, they had to make a stop for gas at one of the few stations in town still open.
She gazed out the window of the car, as they made the ninety minute trip to Nashville noticing, under a full moon, every detail of the beautiful landscape. Though she had passed through the Land Between the Lakes many times, the scenery had never been more stirring.
She thought about the cherished hope that if she ever had the call for a transplant, she would walk into the hospital under her own strength when she arrived and not be carried in on a stretcher.
A Dobutamine drip was in her arm. At one point, her heart had stopped beating. The implanted cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) that was placed in her chest in a separate surgery shocked her heart and brought her back to consciousness. Doctors use the device to help treat irregular heartbeats. An ICD uses electrical pulses or shocks to help control life-threatening arrhythmias, especially those that can cause sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). Her doctors at Vanderbilt had helped keep her alive for more than four years.
She entered the emergency room at about 2:30 in the morning. The young man at the desk told her to stop and asked how he could help her. The maintenance men were busy buffing the floors and it was difficult for them to hear one another speak over roar of the machines. Out of breath, she hollered at him as best she could, “I’m here to get a heart transplant.” He tells her that she must go to the fifth floor but for some reason did not offer her a wheel chair.
Debbie meanders through the long hallways trying to get to the elevator but must make a detour around a roped off area where another maintenance man is replacing tile on the floor and will not let her pass. She finally reaches the fifth floor still unsure if she will make it when she realizes she has gone the wrong way down the corridor. It seems to take forever to get to the transplant surgery center on the other end of Vanderbilt, but she does. Fear now replaces the determination she had to make it this far.
In Debbie’s situation, friends and family did not live close enough to offer assistance or provide care. Her father had died in 1999 after a fall from a deer stand. Her mother lived in San Diego, where Debbie had grown up, but had recently suffered a heart attack and was unable to travel. Her three brothers each lived in different states and had families of their own. She endured the four and one-half years since being diagnosed with heart disease mostly alone with the exception of her husband.
Debbie had accomplished her goal of walking into the hospital and it was a true blessing to her. This was her stand out moment. She now fondly remembers the funny part. It was the time she walked through the hospital late at night and all alone to receive a heart transplant. She reminds us that she was not alone. God was walking with her. She was reminded of this again by the three doves on the window sill. The three doves she saw as she walked into her hospital room for her first surgery a few years earlier.
Debbie’s symptoms began on her 40th birthday. She was retaining fluid and short of breath. Visits to several doctors and attempts to control the symptoms were unsuccessful until a doctor in her hometown of Murray, Kentucky diagnosed her with heart failure. He told her that she should travel to Vanderbilt University Medical Center as soon as possible. Not good timing for a mother of three boys, but is there ever good timing for anyone?
Debbie spent the next thirty-two days in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) where her condition rapidly deteriorated. Two large bottles of fluid were drained from her body but fluid quickly returned. She was taken to surgery where six more bottles of fluid were drained. Debbie is a fighter and she survived the ordeal for the time being. Pneumonia and blood clots were just a few of the issues that developed over the next few weeks.
As the possibility of a heart transplant drew closer, representatives with her health insurance company informed her that the insurance company would not pay for her transplant if it was performed at Vanderbilt instead of another hospital that they had designated. She was very satisfied with the treatment that she had received at Vanderbilt and had made friends with many of the doctors, nurses and staff. She did not want to start the process over at another hospital. The problems with the insurance company were eventually resolved with assistance from the head of the Vanderbilt transplant team and several other people.
She was now eligible to be placed on the transplant waiting list but suffered another setback when an eligibility review determined that she was ineligible for transplant because of pulmonary hypertension. The emotional roller coaster ride continued when her doctor told her that the hypertension had stabilized and she could proceed with the listing.
Her health continued to deteriorate and on one occasion her heart stopped beating. Although she did recover, nagging doubts and fear continued. Would she live long enough to receive a transplant? After one dry run, on January 9, 2008 she received the call that would change her life.
Debbie has made many friends at Vanderbilt and enjoys the opportunity to visit with them when she returns for follow-up visits. Her new heart has allowed her to once again enjoy an active lifestyle. She knows all too well how fragile life is and never takes for granted the gift she has received