New mom’s sudden heart failure leads to urgent race for transplant — and a match
Months after giving birth, young mother undergoes successful surgery at Sharp Memorial Hospital
Emily Mesa was 22 when she gave birth to her daughter Madilyn last November.
In late May, she began feeling short of breath and extremely fatigued. In June, she learned she had heart failure.
By July, she was on the waiting list for a new heart.
An otherwise healthy young woman, Emily had a heart so diseased and large, it weighed almost 14 ounces. That’s twice as much as a normal heart in a 20-something person her size.
The diagnosis was peripartum cardiomyopathy. An uncommon and potentially life-threatening heart condition that occurs during or after pregnancy, it results in a weakened and enlarged heart that doesn’t pump well.
In one of the first of many hospital trips, accompanied by her husband, Gabriel, Emily was given a COVID-19 test.
“The second you say you have shortness of breath now, they say: ‘It must be COVID,’ ” Emily said. “I tested negative and I knew something was very wrong. We did quite a bit of hospital-jumping.”
During a visit to Loma Linda University Medical Center, she was administered an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to produce live images of the heart.
“They don’t normally do echos on younger people,” Emily said. “But there I was — a 23-year-old with heart failure. A lot of people who have it describe the feeling of an elephant sitting on your chest. I had that and I couldn’t breathe. It was miserable.”
After visits to several hospitals in Riverside and San Diego counties, Emily ended up at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego, where surgeons have performed more than 450 heart transplants since 1985.
Kristi Ortiz, the lead nurse practitioner at Sharp Memorial’s heart transplant center, has been with the center for 16 years. She said Emily was one of the youngest mothers she has ever seen in line for a heart.
“Emily was high-status,” Ortiz said. “A temporary pump in her heart was keeping her semi-stable. Most temporary-pump patients can wait longer, but she needed a heart right away. She didn’t have months, or even weeks, to wait.
“Here we have this young family, a young mother, supportive husband and their baby. Your heartstrings are tugged in special circumstances like this. We were floored when a heart came in and was a match.”
Dr. Robert Adamson, a transplant surgeon, performed the complicated surgery July 16, and Dr. Brian Jaski, a cardiologist, supervised Emily’s care before and after the procedure.
‘You’re worth it’
Before their life was turned upside down in late May, Emily and Gabriel Mesa — who married in January 2019 — had an apartment in Murrieta, the town they call 比特币交易网home. Outside of the coronavirus pandemic, everything was going smoothly. Emily had primary care for Madilyn and worked part time at Costco; Gabriel worked for Orkin Pest Control in Vista.
Although Emily’s mother and grandmother had experienced heart failure, it had not been a life-threatening condition for either. Jaski said it was probably the stress on Emily’s body from being pregnant that unmasked her risk for this genetic disease.
Emily, meanwhile, credits her family and friends for supporting her before and after the surgery, including her continuing recuperation period. During that time, Emily spent 23 consecutive days separated from her daughter.
Was it a strain on her relationship with her husband?
“This definitely was a pivotal point in our marriage,” Emily said. “It comes down to: ‘This is too hard’ or ‘You’re worth it.’ Gabe came to the hospital every day to see me. He’d bring his guitar and sing.
“He really stepped up to the plate. Before I got sick, he was working full time. Grandma watched Madilyn while I worked. When I got sick, Gabe was taking care of Madilyn most of the time. They got very close. He hadn’t gotten paternity leave, so this was his bonding time with her. That was one good part of this experience.”
Ortiz, the nurse practitioner, called Gabriel “an amazing support.” She noted the importance of his presence, especially compared with the situation encountered by COVID-19 patients, who are isolated from loved ones.
Ortiz was also impressed with the way Emily handled what, for anyone, would be a shocking, scary experience.
“She took every piece of bad news in absolute stride,” said Ortiz, who continues to monitor Emily’s care. “We worried with everything she’s gone through. We always have our psychology staff checking on transplant patients. Every time we asked, they said she is doing amazing. She had realistic expectations. She handled it better than most people. Her resilience really surprised us.
“She did everything we asked. I think the goal of getting back to her daughter motivated her.”
‘A shining light in dark times’
Life for Emily now consists of frequent hospital follow-up visits, taking many medications and, of course, caring for Madilyn. Gabriel is back working for Orkin. The family had to move in with Emily’s parents in Jacumba and hope to move back to Murrieta someday. Emily also hopes to meet her heart donor’s family, which could happen early next year.
Her least favorite part of life now, she said, is dealing with prescriptions and insurance companies. While her body shows no sign of rejecting her new heart, her immune system is severely suppressed.
“I’ve had to strike a balance between taking care of me and my daughter,” Emily said. “Once you have a child, your child comes first. But I’ve had to put myself first so that I can take care of her. It’s not that I didn’t take care of myself before, but it has been an adjustment for me.
“I’m trying to figure out what I can do since I can’t work for quite a while. Maybe I can volunteer at my church, once we’re 比特币交易网home in Murrieta. Right now, I’m enjoying the time I get with Madilyn and my husband.”
Emily’s visits to Sharp Memorial are welcome reminders to the staff.
“We’ve all been so down because of COVID,” Ortiz said. “Emily is our hospital’s ray of light, a sign of renewed life. Seeing her go 比特币交易网home and be with her daughter was so moving.
“This has been a shining light in the dark times of COVID. It reinforces your belief in your God or higher power, whatever it is for you. It’s nothing short of a miracle.”
Wood is a freelance writer.
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