Phone rings. 3:42 AM. Never a good call at that time.
I listen, shocked. Adrenaline rushes. My fingers tremble on my shirt buttons.
Twelve minutes later in the ER, several people explain that Shelby, my 20 year old daughter, has an enlarged heart that’s only working at 15% capacity.
I can’t get to her. People everywhere, beside her, in the way. I can’t reach her, and she’s slipping away.
It’s almost ten minutes before I can bend over to see her in the bed, pale. So pale. Shallow breathing. Hands and fingers, blue and cold.
I speak softly, fully understanding I may not ever get to again. “Hey Sweetheart.”
Her eyelids flutter before opening her blue eyes that are there, but slipping.
I see the recognition as she whispers, “Daddy, I don’t want to die.”
They are going to life flight her to Houston. I leave immediately on a 2 ½ hour drive hoping, praying she’s still alive when the helicopter lands.
I question and bargain with God while I drive.
Why not me, God? Can you switch our places? How can she have my heart, God? Please let her make it, God! Please!
She makes it to Houston, but I wait in a room as the TV drones about weather and the stock market.
A nurse bursts through double doors.
“Family history?”, she asks.
Shelby and her three sisters are adopted. I push adoption DNA, the DNA of heart, aside. I answer her questions, share everything I can think of, all I can remember about my daughter’s biological DNA and history.
They reversed the medications given by the local hospital during the life flight. She’s already doing better.
The doctor, however, confirms that this 5’4”, 95 pound young lady has a heart like an obese, 80 year old man who has drunk heavily and smoked 3 packs of cigarettes a day for 60 years.
It’s the week before Thanksgiving, 2017.
By Thanksgiving Day, Shelby had three surgeries, with the third, an open heart surgery to implant a left ventricular assist device (LVAD). It includes wires, and tubes through the abdomen, and an outside unit that has to have fresh batteries every 8 hours to keep her alive.
An LVAD isn’t an artificial heart, not completely. It just helps her own heart continue beating life giving blood throughout the body.
It’s temporary, a year, two years at the most, a bridge to the time when she’s strong enough for a heart transplant.
With each walk through the ICU, I was struck that every other patient was 60 years or older, often with many other obvious physical issues and conditions. Each room seemed rather sad, hopeless in so many ways, that is, until you turn into the last room on the left.
Even when she felt the worst, Shelby’s blue eyes twinkled, and she was always, always positive. She was, she is, like a rock star among hospital staff, all of them.
New staff may walk in and see a pretty, blue eyed, blonde haired young lady sitting in bed who smiles and greets them. They glance at the chart thinking they’re in the wrong room, not a heart patient’s room.
Shelby expressed interest in every nurse, doctor, janitor that came in her room. She’d joke, tease and cut up, and when she wasn’t feeling good, the staff would pick it up and give it right back to her.
When the doctor first told Shelby her heart was extremely enlarged, she immediately retorted, “I know! Everyone’s always told me I have such a big heart!”
Shelby was officially placed on a heart transplant list in May, 2018.
Without it, well, no one ever talked about the without it part.
It’s more than just the physical that Shelby had to deal with. She did her best to come to terms with the cards life dealt her.
Most, now 21-year-olds, don’t have to deal with the very real possibility of their own mortality, or the daunting thought of a transplant. Most don’t experience that at the blink of an eye her option to have a baby one day is forever gone.
Even her dream to manage a restaurant or hotel seemed to crash because of the stress and long hours required.
Shelby, however, pushed on always carrying the LVAD pump that quietly kept her enlarged heart beating. She returned to college via online college courses in the Summer of 2018. She signed up for a full load of courses in the Fall of 2018.
She was even in two weddings during this time as a bridesmaid. She rocked it too! She carried the LVAD pump disguised as a handbag that perfectly matched her bridesmaid dresses!
If you didn’t know her condition, you’d never figure it out.
Heart transplant plans, procedures, the hows and whys, were all reviewed with Shelby. A heart could be located any month, week, day, or hour. It was always red alert, even on calmest of days.
At lunchtime on September 10, 2018, my cell phone rang at work.
She was breathing heavy, full of a thousand emotions, from excitement to anxiety, hope to fear, collected, to falling apart, happy, but sad….
“Daddy, they called! They have a heart!!”
(Read part 2 here)