Heart transplant

She is celebrating her 50th birthday and the 9th anniversary of her heart transplant

Heart transplant Melody Hickman. (Photo courtesy of Melody Hickman)

At 26, Melody Hickman of Raleigh, North Carolina, was discouraged. A routine medical examination detected a problem with his mitral valve. Fixing it required open-heart surgery.

“I knew I would have to be on a heart-lung machine, and the thought of having the incision really bothered me,” she said, noting that she often wore v-neck tops “It was a lot to digest.”

The operation and recovery went well. Then, 14 years later, the valve had to be replaced again. This meant a second open heart operation.

Following this operation, she often felt weak and had stomach pains. Feeling hot and sweaty one day at work, she locked her office door, closed the blinds and vomited into a wastebasket. “My legs were so weak that I couldn’t even get up from the floor,” she said.

Thinking it might be stomach issues, her then-husband took her to a gastroenterologist. In her office, she fainted. The doctor started an IV and called an ambulance.

Rushed to hospital, Hickman slipped into a coma. She had had a heart attack. Intubated and on 24-hour dialysis, she remained unconscious for about a month. His prognosis was so grim that the transplant team asked his family to donate his organs on his 40th birthday.

His family couldn’t bear the thought of giving up. Instead, they stayed by her side, reading the paper aloud, singing, and telling jokes. Although she has no memory of that time, “I believe that the sensations I felt helped me get through it,” she said.

When she finally woke up, her speech was slurred and her body was weak. She had to relearn how to walk and use kitchen utensils. His heart was also in bad condition.

Over the next few months, doctors repaired a hole in his heart, implanted a defibrillator, and later implanted a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD.

Powered by an external battery connected to the device by a cord in Hickman’s abdomen, the LVAD helped his heart pump blood to the rest of his body. An LVAD is often used to keep people alive until a transplant. Indeed, Hickman was placed on the waiting list for a new heart.

“She had heart failure, and the extent of her heart failure was felt to be irreversible,” said Dr. Antone Tatooles, a cardiothoracic surgeon who treated Hickman.

While the LVAD kept her alive, it also brought its share of challenges. Hickman felt so weak that she kept a portable toilet next to her bed. She cleaned herself with a washcloth. The heat produced by the battery also bothered her.

Her father, a pastor, urged her to ask God what she wanted more than anything. The answer, of course, was a new heart. She had hesitated to pray for it because she had understood “for me to live, someone had to die”.

Desperate for help, she prayed, anointing her chest with oil that her father had prayed over with two co-workers.

Three hours later, the transplant coordinator called. They had identified a heart that might match. Later that day, he confirmed it. “I thought I was dreaming,” she said. Knowing that another family was grieving, she sobbed on her way to the hospital.

After so many open-heart surgeries, she worried that her body wouldn’t be able to handle the operation and dreaded another painful recovery. She was all too familiar with the heart-shaped pillow the hospital provided for her to hold against her chest when she coughed.

His multiple surgeries have indeed complicated the transplant. Tatooles had to cut through thick scar tissue before he could successfully replace his damaged heart.

Hickman knew as soon as she regained consciousness that her new heart was working. She could breathe easier. And after undergoing cardiac rehab, she did better than she had in a year. “I thought I was in heaven when I could take a bath again,” she said. “I found my independence, a new breath of life.”

Melody Hickman with her dog, Sarah.  (Photo courtesy of Melody Hickman)
Melody Hickman with her dog, Sarah. (Photo courtesy of Melody Hickman)

Hickman was thrilled when she received a letter from her donor’s parents. She learned that their 20-year-old daughter, Ashley, had died of a brain aneurysm. Hickman replied, and they met soon after.

Hickman arrived with a stethoscope in case they wanted to hear their daughter’s heartbeat. They had one too.

“It was very emotional to meet them,” she said. “I wake up and thank Ashley every morning without fail.”

Hickman has a new attitude these days. She doesn’t sweat the small stuff and she’s grateful for the things she might not have noticed before. Eager to give back, she volunteers for Meals on Wheels and often speaks with others with heart disease about her experience. Don’t give up, she told them, because you never know what tomorrow will bring.

“She had the most amazing attitude,” Tatooles said. “She was truly a great spokesperson for mechanical support and transplantation to help educate people around her about the medical therapies we have today to support people like her who are suffering from heart disease in last phase.”

In September, Hickman celebrated nine years of her transplant. The fact that September 29 is both her birthday and World Heart Day makes the month even sweeter.

“I now have a real zest for life that I don’t know if I ever would have had if I hadn’t gone through so much to go through,” she said. “All those extra days are amazing gifts.”

Stories from the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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