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When many heart transplant recipients tell their story, it includes years of slowly declining heart function, difficulty catching their breath and fatigue that makes it hard to accomplish anything.
Not Sarah Russell. The 58-year-old’s heart took just one day to go from perfectly healthy to 10% function. Fortunately, she had the team at the UW Health Heart Transplant Program helping her and received the gift of life with a heart transplant eight days after her cardiac event.
On the evening of September 20, 2020, Sarah—who lives in Davis, Illinois—complained of a sore throat to her husband, Mike. After they went to bed, she got up, saying she didn’t feel good. As he followed her downstairs in their house, she told him she thought she was having a heart attack. She wouldn’t let him call 911, so he drove her to the nearest hospital, where doctors performed a catheterization and found a blood clot in her heart. They attempted to place a stent, but while they were doing so, the clot came loose, blocked her blood flow and damaged her heart beyond repair.
First, caregivers transferred Sarah to another, bigger hospital, where doctors used a technique called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) to connect Sarah to a machine that acted as an artificial lung for her. Then, they transferred her to University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. Doctors there didn’t know if she was going to live through the night, so Mike called her adult children so they could come say goodbye. “I knew it was bad,” he says. “It was so surreal.”
Sarah’s doctors told Mike they still were hoping Sarah’s heart would return to normal function, but in the meantime, they would perform the necessary tests so she could get on the wait list for a new heart. Within days, she received four different offers for a heart transplant. The one her doctors chose for her, worked like the charm, and she received her gift of life on September 27.
Because Sarah was in such good health prior to her cardiac event, she bounced back quickly and was walking two days after surgery. “Everyone at the hospital took such good care of me,” she says. “They explained everything that was happening as we went along. They helped me with anything I asked for, and they were so happy to walk the halls with me. All the nurses and nurse aides who answered my call button never made me feel like I was a problem. Every meal that was delivered to my room came with a smile.”
Soon after she returned home, Sarah was back to her job performing data entry for an insurance company (she has worked from home since the start of the coronavirus pandemic). She and Mike already were active before her transplant, but they quickly resumed their routine of walking and exercising often. “I never felt afraid throughout all of this,” she says. “I felt like I was in good hands.”