A story about a heart transplant
In February of 2004, at the young age of 25, Aisha O’Mally was given some of the best news of her life:
There was a new heart waiting for her.
Hours later, that heart would begin beating inside Aisha’s body—something she never could have imagined just a year earlier.
Aisha’s journey toward having a heart transplant started innocently enough. On her 24th birthday, Aisha had difficulty sleeping. But rather than getting better over the next few days, her symptoms gradually became worse.
“I would lay down and hear gurgling,” Aisha recalls. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
Doctors initially suspected bronchitis or bronchial spasms. Aisha was given a prescription for antibiotics. But a week later, she was still not feeling better. Aisha felt the same constant gurgling in her chest, and she wasn’t able to sleep lying down.
One evening, Aisha’s parents became particularly concerned by her sickly appearance, so they took her to the Emergency Department at Highland Hospital.
When a blood test was performed, the blood clotted right in the test tube. A chest X-ray revealed that Aisha had an enlarged heart.
Transfer to Strong Memorial Hospital
Concerned about the severity of Aisha’s condition, doctors at Highland transferred Aisha to Strong Memorial Hospital.
A heart can become enlarged when something—such as high blood pressure or heart valve disease—causes it to pump harder than usual. It was unusual, though, that Aisha should have this condition at such a young age.
An echocardiogram revealed that Aisha had a clot in her left ventricle, a common occurrence with an enlarged heart. While she was still at Strong, Aisha experienced a heart attack as the blood clot that had formed in her heart’s left ventricle broke loose. Doctors successfully revived her, but her ejection fraction—a measure of the heart’s ability to pump blood—had plunged to 10%. A normal ejection fraction is 55-70%.
Aisha was in heart failure, a condition in which the heart is unable to pump enough blood to provide for the body’s needs. Dr. Leway Chen, head of the Program in Heart Failure and Transplantation at Strong, prescribed several medications to help strengthen Aisha’s heart. While surgery was a consideration, he hoped the right combination of drugs could help “jump-start” Aisha’s heart.
Over the next few months, Aisha showed little improvement. The cause of her heart failure also became apparent: When she was in college, Aisha had been diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid. Her condition was not monitored closely. As a result, her heart was overworked for too long, ultimately causing it to weaken.
Placed on the transplant list
By June, Aisha’s condition was still getting worse. Dr. Chen put Aisha on the transplant list as a precaution.
“It didn’t strike me how sick I was,” Aisha recalls. “My parents were more scared than I was!”
In 3 months, Aisha’s health deteriorated to the point where she could no longer live on her own. She moved in with her parents. By November, she was told that she needed to stay at Strong until a heart became available. It was almost more than Aisha could take.
“I felt like, ‘I am done!’” Aisha says. “I didn’t want to try any new medications. I just wanted to go home. Then Dr. Chen came in. He told me that if I didn’t stay, I was going to die.”
“My parents were in the room,” Aisha recalls. “That’s what made me stay. I couldn’t imagine them without me.”
Staying at the hospital and waiting for a heart was a big challenge for Aisha. “I had cabin fever!” she recalls. “My friends would come to visit and tell me about the things they were doing. And everyone there on the transplant floor was so much older than me!”
Gradually, Aisha turned her mind to other aspects of her ordeal. “I realized this was an opportunity,” she says. She started to find new ways to use her time, including knitting scarves for many of her friends and family members.
"We may have found you a heart"
Aisha spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and her 25th birthday in the hospital. Then, in the middle of the night on February 9th, four nurses came into my room and said they might have found a heart for me.
“I called my parents to tell them the news,” says Aisha. “They couldn’t believe it!”
At 10 a.m. in the morning, Aisha arrived at surgery. Dr. Todd Massey performed her heart transplant in a surgery that took 6 hours. He would later tell Aisha that the new heart started pumping normally on its own. It was a perfect fit.
That night, Aisha’s parents watched her as she slept. For the first time in months, she was breathing normally.
The recovery for Aisha was relatively quick because she was so young. She left the hospital within a month, and by the end of July had returned to her job at JP Morgan Chase part-time.
A brand new focus
Aisha soon learned, though, that she had left the hospital with more than a new heart. She had left with a new focus for her life.
“I started volunteering at health fairs and other places where people want to learn about organ donation,” says Aisha. “It was inspiring to see how many people were inspired by my story!”
Aisha is now attending Rochester Institute of Technology to gain the education she needs to make a difference in this field. “I used my own story for my entrance essay,” she says. “I eat, sleep and breathe transplant! There are so many other people who need help. When people hear you had a heart transplant and see how well you're doing, they instantly want to be a donor.”
Her heroes in this effort? Her family and the doctors and nurses who helped her to receive a new heart.
“I love Dr. Chen,” she says. “He is the most patient person. He will answer every single question and let you know it’s going to be okay. And Dr. Massey is just so kind-hearted, and so positive and passionate. I love them both!”
And Aisha loves the second chance provided by these two doctors and the whole staff at Strong.
“I almost died,” she says. “If I can get through that, I can get through anything.
“Sometimes I’m driving my car and I think, ‘Wow, I have someone else’s heart inside of me!' I'm amazed at it all. There are happy endings!”