Julie Hutchinson’s second life began 27 years ago. Each of those years, the 58-year-old Riverside resident celebrated her heart transplant anniversary with her loved ones.
âWe call it my ‘anna-birthday’ because this day marks both the anniversary of the transplant and my second anniversary towards a new life,â she says of the special time of remembrance. “I have never met the heart giver’s family, and I don’t know who they are, but around my anna-birthday they weigh heavily on my new heart.”
Hutchinson is among the longest-lived patients to have received a single Heart transplant as an adult at Loma Linda University Health, says Liset Stoletniy, MD, cardiologist specializing in heart transplantation and advanced heart failure in International Heart Institute. Although similar situations occur in pediatric patients who receive neonatal transplants and reach adulthood, they are less common in the adult population receiving heart transplants.
She’s a survivor.Dr Liset Stoletniy
The average survival time for an adult heart transplant is around 12 years, so Hutchinson, who is now 27 with his new heart, beat the odds by far, Stoletniy says. This fact is “exceptional,” says Stoletniy, who also cared for Hutchinson throughout subsequent cancer diagnosis and treatment. âShe’s a survivor.
Frightened Hutchinson initially struggled to process news of her need for a new heart and her diagnosis, called viral cardiomyopathy – a rare form of heart failure manifested by weakness of the heart muscle. His health deteriorated dramatically in just a few weeks before his admission to Loma Linda University Medical Center (LLUMC) around Thanksgiving 1993. She suddenly went from being an energetic, busy mother to being practically bedridden in her home, with an oxygen tank and “drug facility” close at hand.
“I had a two year old girl at the time who was very afraid of what was happening to her mother, so everyone had to be very strong around her.”
A mother and fighter, Hutchinson spent the first seven months of 1994 recovering from the transplant in Isolation Room Seven on the seventh floor of LLUMC. Life support had supported her for days before her new heart procedure. Upon awakening, she set out to reverse the effects of the atrophy: relearning from scratch how to lift her hands, walk, sit, stand, eat and speak as she did before.
Dealing with health issues or going to hospital, especially during the holiday season, is a particularly distressing experience, and Hutchinson knows it well. She shares bits of wisdom and tactics that have helped her get through such difficult times in hopes of helping others in similar situations.
Repeatedly in the hospital, Hutchinson said she didn’t think she could get through the next day. During those times, she turned to her faith and her pastor’s advice: go minute by minute. Breaking time into small chunks by spending a few minutes at a time instead of worrying about the intimidating feat of the weeks to come has helped Hutchinson ease his stress and anxiety.
Another thing that helped her tremendously was thinking or planning an activity or trip to take after she was released from the hospital. âI love going for a walk in the mountains, so I had a picture of the mountains in Big Bear. I dreamed and was caught up in being well enough to go.
Some see the glass as half full, but she actually sees the glass as full.Dr Liset Stoletniy
Yet in the end, it was a rich exchange of love and compassion between Hutchinson and others that she believes motivated her to fight for life on multiple occasions. A support system made up of care teams, a religious community, friends and family surrounded him.
âAlways have someone to talk to, even if it’s just to cry,â she says.
Nurses and doctors on the cardiac care and transplant teams have shown compassion and alignment with Hutchinson’s physical and emotional well-being – especially nurses at night, at a time when Hutchinson says she feared never to see his daughter again.
The amazing people who worked to make sure that I was able to grow up with my mom made me choose the profession of nursing.Caitlin hutchinson
Healthcare teams regained the same level of support for Hutchinson in 2010 as she underwent part of her treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma in LLU Cancer Center. The cardiology and oncology teams coordinated his care, put in place protocols to monitor his heart health throughout cardiotoxic chemotherapy and visits during his infusions.
Stoletniy says she admired Hutchinson’s unwavering positivity. âIt’s always nice to see her because she is who she is, very bubbly and happy to be alive. Some see the glass as half full, but she actually sees the glass as full, âshe says.
Forging and cherishing strong bonds with healthcare teams helped Hutchinson through this, she says. Hutchinson also relied on her husband and high school sweetheart, Tom, and the rest of his family for support. Family photos and colorful drawings of her daughter hung on the walls of Room Seven. “These photos were the first thing I saw when I woke up and the last thing I saw before I fell asleep.”
Caitlin, Hutchinson’s daughter, was constantly on the mind and motivated her recovery. Today, Caitlin, 30, has a bachelor’s degree in feeding with milk and a master’s degree in public health from LLU and drew her dedication to the medical field by watching her mother overcome health issues.
âThe amazing people who worked to make sure I was able to grow up with my mom are what made me choose nursing,â she says. âIt created in me a desire to improve the lives of others and has had such a positive impact on the lives of my patients and their families as Loma Linda University Health has on mine. “
In January, Hutchinson plans to celebrate his 28th birthdaye “Birthday” with Caitlin, Tom and their loved ones – the same month, she hopes to meet her first little baby. Caitlin foresees her baby to breathe new life at LLUMC, as she did when she was a baby and, in a way, like Hutchinson in 1994 when she woke up with another chance to live with a new heart.
“There isn’t a day that doesn’t go by that I’m not grateful.”
To learn more about heart transplants, visit https://lluh.org/transplant-institute/our-services/heart-transplant. If you or your family are dealing with what may seem like a complex heart diagnosis, make an appointment with one of our experts by calling 1-800-468-5432.