“I have to go back to work. My next case starts at 12:30.” That’s what Lois Angelisanti, a registered nurse from Reading, Pennsylvania, remembers saying 13 years ago when she went for pre-operative tests before scheduled foot surgery.
That test included a 12-lead electrocardiogram of his heart, which Angelisanti said was just routine. “But the next thing I knew the room was full of doctors,” she said. At 50 and barely 120 pounds, she was having a heart attack – and she didn’t even know it. The cause: cardiomyopathy, a disease that weakens the heart muscle.
Angelisanti’s cardiomyopathy eventually became so severe that she required a heart transplant. She chose Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, where the heart transplant team performed their surgery in January 2017. Five years later, they are fully active. “I walk, talk, sing, laugh, garden, go to church, clean my house and babysit my grandson, Landen,” she said.
His remarkable journey reflects the comprehensive care provided by the Heart Transplant Program at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. And the team’s care ranks among the best in the country. According to data from the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients (SRTR) published in January 2022, the program has achieved a remarkable 100% patient survival rate over three years. In addition, the program’s one-year patient survival rate is 94.66%, higher than the national average of 91.24%.
SRTR data covers transplants from July 1, 2018 to March 12, 2020 and from June 13, 2020 to December 31, 2020. SRTR omits data from March 12, 2020 to June 12, 2020, due to the impacts of the initial outbreak of COVID-19.
These results come as no surprise to Angelisanti, who chose Hershey Medical Center based on its successful heart transplant results. “A lot of people were encouraging me to go to a big hospital in Ohio for my transplant, but when I looked into it I saw that Hershey Medical Center had good results and a lot more patients too” , she said. “So, I said, I’ll stay local, where I feel I should be.”
“You never feel alone”
From the day of her heart transplant, Angelisanti has relied on the guidance and companionship of Taylor Hodges, a registered nurse and heart transplant coordinator at Hershey Medical Center. Today, when Hodges calls to check on Angelisanti, they chat like best friends.
“Lois always asks about my children. We are on a first name basis,” Hodges said. “She is a bit like a family. She is so sweet. Most of the time when I call him, I don’t even tell him who it is. She simply responds and says, ‘Hello, Taylor.’ “
Hodges is part of a team of four heart transplant coordinators at Hershey Medical Center — two pre-transplant and two post-transplant — who serve as the primary point of contact for patients. “Anything they need, they come to us, call us,” Hodges said.
For Angelisanti, Hodges was a lifeline. Ten months after her transplant, Angelisanti began noticing potential signs of rejection. “I called Taylor and said I’m coughing and a little short of breath,” Angelisanti said. “She said, oh my God, Lois, come here right now!” A change in anti-rejection medication helped Angelisanti recover without the need for additional surgeries.
“At Hershey Medical Center, you never feel alone because you’re not,” Angelisanti said.
Heart transplant coordinators like Hodges also help connect patients with members of a heart transplant team that includes surgeons, cardiologists, pharmacists, social workers, counselors, dietitians, and financial coordinators.
“Having 100% survivability three years after heart transplantation is a testament to the expertise of each member of our team throughout the patient journey,” said transplant surgeon Dr. Behzad Soleimani, who performed the Angelisanti procedure. “The margin between success and failure for transplant surgeons is very narrow, so everyone who cares for a patient over a three-year period has to do their job perfectly.”
Her Hallelujah Moment
Looking back on her five-year heart transplant journey, Angelisanti, now 63, will never forget a photo she took with her daughter, Amanda, the day after her surgery. “We are both smiling, and I call it my hallelujah picture,” she said. “I give all my success to God and my faith.”
She also remembers the care she received from the nursing staff at Hershey Medical Center. “They are absolute angels,” she said. “I never needed anything. You would think I was the only patient there the way they treated me.
Today, Angelisanti returns to Hershey Medical Center for blood work once a year, and she no longer needs heart biopsies to check for rejection. Although she is not resuming her nursing career, she enjoys crocheting, cooking homemade Italian dinners and spending time with her daughter, two sons and four grandchildren.
And as someone who only knew she was having a heart attack after the fact, Angelisanti shares a potentially life-saving message with other women. “We don’t feel our symptoms,” she said. “I had no chest pain. No arm clamping. No jaw pain. So if you feel something – even a flutter in your chest – don’t ignore it.