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Stories of hope

Erin: from medical student to heart transplant recipient

Erin Day

2023 was a life-changing year for me and my family.

My story begins on Monday, April 3rd. I woke up with a tight sensation in my chest. I thought it might be soreness from “fowling” (football-bowling – a surprisingly fun activity) the night before at my friend’s birthday. As a previously healthy 25-year-old woman, heart failure certainly did not cross my mind as the culprit.

I was a third-year medical student on my psychiatric rotation, so I went into the hospital that morning as usual. I began to develop body aches throughout the day and assumed I was coming down with a cold. That night, I woke up nauseous and proceeded to vomit throughout the night. I emailed the senior resident to inform her that I would not be able to come in the next day, but hoped to be back by Wednesday. Well, that was not the case. I continued to throw up throughout the day on Tuesday and began to feel very fatigued. I decided to go to an urgent care. I tested negative for COVID and the flu and was sent home with Zofran. I didn’t even make it to the car before I threw that up. I continued to feel progressively worse throughout the night and into the next morning.

On Wednesday morning, I attempted to take a walk, hoping the fresh air would help, but I could hardly make it about 50 feet to lie down on the nearest public bench. After that episode, and about the millionth text message from my mother telling me to go to the ER, I finally agreed that it was necessary. I had been hesitant to go in because I had recently finished my emergency medicine rotation at that hospital, and I was embarrassed to run into the residents and attendings with whom I had worked. I’m glad that I did go in, though, because I was later told that if I had waited even one more day, the ending might have been much different.

My EKG was abnormal; it appeared that I might be having a heart attack. I was immediately brought to the cath lab. My arteries were clear, so the doctor thought it might be myocarditis, which was indeed the case. I was in cardiogenic shock and was transferred to a larger hospital. The plan was for me to be airlifted, but tornado warnings led to a less exciting ambulance ride instead.

There was enough excitement without the helicopter ride, though. Once I arrived at the next hospital, I was brought back to the cath lab twice more that night – the first time to place a balloon pump in my heart, and the second time to put me on ECMO life support.

By the end of the week (just five days after I showed any symptom whatsoever) I was listed as high priority for a heart transplant.

It was a scary and stressful waiting period, but the night that we had all been waiting for arrived. On April 18th, I received a phone call informing me that they had a heart for me that appeared to be a perfect match. I was filled with a variety of emotions. I called a few family members, but refrained from telling too many people until the surgery was certain. It was not until I was wheeled into the operating room that I began to accept that it was finally happening. I was getting a new heart.

Of course, in the midst of my emotions was some survivor’s guilt. I had hoped and prayed for the past two weeks that the doctors would find a perfect match for me. But as we all know, that means that someone had to die for this to happen. Why her, and not me? Had I wished death upon her? It is hard not to have these feelings in the moment, but now I am able to view the situation in a different light. It is not that my donor died for me to live, but rather, that she tragically passed away, and because of her selfless decision to be an organ donor, I was able to live. And I plan to do everything in my power to honor her memory. To begin, I am eagerly awaiting my return to medical school to continue my path toward becoming a physician. In the meantime, I advocate for organ and tissue donation. I cannot say enough to express my gratitude for my donor and her family, but I hope that my actions speak for themselves as I aim to make the most of my second chance at life.

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