The circle formed this week at the Big Tree Elementary School in Hamburg. Brendalis Vega showed up to see her son Antonio take part in a “rise” ceremony in fifth grade. It was the kind of moment that for a parent speaks of the speed of childhood, but it’s hard to believe anyone in the auditorium felt it as intensely as Vega.
His life reached a turning point six months ago in the same building. She felt ugly, but wanted to see her children at a holiday concert, where she found herself staggering and unable to walk.
“I couldn’t breathe, I had chest pains. My right hand was going numb,” Vega said.
Her longtime partner, José Collazo, took her to the emergency room. Her condition was alarming enough that specialists at Buffalo General Hospital soon believed she needed special analysis. She was transferred to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, where doctors offered a sobering result.
At 35, his only chance was a heart transplant.
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“She was at imminent risk of dying,” said Dr. Sabu Thomas, a transplant cardiologist who worked with surgeons Drs. Igor Gosev and Katherine Wood as part of a team that saw Vega every day for two months.
In March, more than a month after the operation, she returned to her six children. The eldest, Natasha, graduated Friday from Lackawanna High School. Next is Michael, 15, who worships Stefon Diggs of the Buffalo Bills and says he started learning to cook while his mother was away, and Antonio, 12, who is so grateful for his mother’s return that he rarely leaves. The twins, Jose and Anangeliz, are 11, while the youngest child, Anneil, is 3 and rumbles around the yard, curious about a hen that delivers eggs and serves as a fearless pet.
For a few years, Vega said, she felt increasingly tired. She and Collazo thought it had something to do with Vega’s surgery in 2014, when doctors removed a mass from her thyroid, the first time she felt like she was on the brink.
She linked the ensuing problems to her thyroid, not heart problems. Thomas said Strong’s doctors don’t yet know exactly what caused her heart to drop, but Vega came in “in a pretty tough spot. Her heart was swollen and she was in an advanced state of heart failure.
What she had on her side, as the doctors and nurses soon noticed, was constant and passionate family support. Vega grew up as one of Buffalo’s five siblings. Collazo grew up in Puerto Rico before moving to western New York in search of a better job. He and Vega met in 2008, when they both worked at Holiday Candy Corp.
Their first date? “It was at Wendy’s, during break time,” Collazo said.
He is now a union painter and he juggled shifts to join Vega’s family in a collective effort to care for the children while their mother was hospitalized. The separation was particularly difficult for their youngest, as Vega – whose health condition forced her to quit her job at a cleaning company – had never been away from Anneil for more than a few hours since he was born. In the hospital, she had too much time to worry about the condition of each of her children and whether she would ever see them again.
It’s impossible to describe the minute-by-minute feeling, she said, when you know your heart is on the fast track to failure, and the only hope is a transplant you realize must be. based on the loss of another family, and you wonder if a new heart will even “take” with your system – if something so precious becomes available.
Her younger sister, Christina Baxter, lives in Rochester. She said Vega had always been outgoing, quick to laugh or dance, and one of the worst things about the whole vigil was seeing that light overshadowed by illness and fatigue. Baxter visited Vega in Strong every day, and his job was to remind his tired and scared sister of what they both knew to be the best motivation:
She would find a way to do it, for her children.
This faith has often been tested. Baxter was there the day nurses rushed into the room, saying monitors showed Vega was in immediate trouble and needed a ‘balloon pump’ – inserted into her aorta – to stay in life.
For weeks, Vega could barely move in bed, and the only relief came from the nurses’ sponge baths. Baxter said she will never forget the moment she received a call about her sister dropping her on her knees: the hospital had learned that a potentially compatible heart was available. Still, hope was tempered by the reality of all the risks the operation involved, and Vega told Baxter:
“If I die, tell the children I love them.”
The procedure lasted more than eight hours. Collazo still carries on her phone the video of a moment that Vega doesn’t remember, when she first woke up after the operation and kept repeating:
“I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive, for all of you.
Two days later, with visitors still limited because Vega’s immune system was vulnerable, nurses helped her to the window, where she waved to her family on a sidewalk far below. She remains acutely aware that a miracle for them began as a tragedy for another family. Under strict rules governing transplants, she only knows the heart she received is from a young person, and Vega and Collazo have already sent a letter to the still-unnamed donor’s family through the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network. , the regional organ procurement organization.
“If they want to,” Collazo said, “we make this family part of our family.”
The children brought two stuffed animals to the hospital, one for their mother and one with a note thanking the nurses and doctors “for saving mum’s life”. In March, relatives rushed from a house decorated with “Welcome Home” balloons and lighted signs honoring the Bills to gather in a van in the driveway, where Vega was crying so hard she had to reassure her family. worry :
Recovery will take time. Walking is still a trial and Vega can’t handle the stairs yet, and she returns to Strong for checkups every two weeks. She’s taking what Collazo estimates around 50 pills a day to make sure she doesn’t reject the new heart, and Thomas – the doctor who treated her for months – said everything was going as well as it did. he could hope for it.
Vega describes it all as an impossible gift, and she forces herself to see even the smallest things in a different way. She went to Big Tree for a few days to watch Antonio’s ceremony ‘going up’ to college, thinking she’d be fine in a small crowd, but the doctor’s advised caution regarding Covid-19 and other illnesses swayed her. forced to stay home Friday and savor the photographs as the 19-year-old who she calls “Nati” took to the stage in Lackawanna.
Not too long ago, Vega would invest a lot of energy in “stressing” over what she saw as shortcomings, the things she couldn’t do. After realizing how easily everything could have been lost, she finds herself grateful just for the days spent in the yard, where the chicken wanders casually among the children, where Antonio listens to his mother’s every word and where the twins are splashed on a hot afternoon. in an above ground pool.
School was out and the 11-year-olds observed – at the same time – that two things made this summer special.
“She’s back,” Jose shouted, while Anangeliz shouted, “She’s here!”
Sean Kirst is a columnist at the Buffalo News. Email him at [email protected]