'Thankful to be alive’
Vanessa Trotter is especially thankful this holiday for a gift that keeps on beating.
Trotter, 31, of Medford, is recovering from heart transplant surgery that she received at Oregon Health & Science University this past May. She felt the need to speak publicly about her illness and the procedure to acknowledge the team of specialists who have worked so hard with her.
“I’m very, very thankful to be alive,” Trotter said. “I’m glad to be here.”
She had been diagnosed with non-ischemic cardiomyopathy, a weakened heart due to causes other than blockages in the arteries of the heart. The heart transplant has now rid her of that condition.
“In the beginning, it was a bit of a struggle, because this was a newborn thing to my body,” Trotter said. “It was a shock. It was harder to move around and do things.”
And then, “once I got used to it, I felt amazing — I had more energy, I could do things before where I would struggle,” she said.
In the summer of 2020, months after the pandemic forced many to work from home, Trotter started feeling symptoms like she had a cold. She spoke to her doctor, who gave her an inhaler and medications, but nothing would help.
“Over time, I was getting weak,” Trotter said. “I was trying to sleep sitting up every night — it was that bad — because I thought I was going to die in my sleep.”
She didn’t want to go to the hospital, even though she was feeling some COVID-19 symptoms, because those facilities were treating so many coronavirus patients.
Dr. Jared Plumb, a cardiologist with Southern Oregon Cardiology in Medford, met Trotter in October of 2020, when she was first admitted to the hospital.
He performed an echocardiogram, an ultrasound of the heart, and it was determined Trotter “was in severe heart failure.” Trotter remembers the diagnosis well.
“I was devastated because I just never had to deal with anything … that major in my life before, health wise,” she said. “The first thing I thought was, ‘I’m going to die.’ I didn't think there were any other options.”
She was told her heart was only working at 10% — a “mystery” to Trotter, since she only had a few pre-existing conditions and didn’t know much about her birth family as a foster child. Later on, however, Trotter would learn that her mother had open heart surgery around the same time she received a transplant.
Plumb put Trotter on various medications to improve her heart function but suspected she would need a transplant “or other advanced therapies” if those did not work. So, he transferred her to OHSU for an evaluation.
On Nov. 2, 2020, Trotter was transferred from Medford to OSHU, where a team at OHSU’s Heart Failure and Transplant Program began working with her.
“She was struggling with pretty significant heart failure,” said Dr. Deborah Meyers, the head of the program and one of several OHSU heart specialists. “At the same time we’re seeing a patient like Vanessa, who is … pretty far along in the heart failure journey, we’re also thinking to ourselves, ‘where are we going to go with this? How can this patient have a better quality of life and a longer life?’
“We’re always thinking about those things in parallel because they’re both really important.”
OSHU was able to stabilize her so she could spend Christmas of 2020 at home, but she would be in and out of the hospital before she learned that she would get a new heart.
“I want to say I'm a person that has patience, but that was something I was impatient about because this was my life we were talking about,” Trotter said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen this soon. I was prepared not to get a heart [transplant].”
She was thinking about drawing up a will and saying goodbye to her loved ones.
“That was a really hard thing to realize at the age of 30,” Trotter said.
Some patients who are on the heart transplant list are taken off if doctors can get them better, Meyers noted, but that was not the case for Trotter.
“For a young person, thinking about a transplant, it’s a shock, because she didn’t realize that she was this sick, and that was a lot to deal with,” Meyers said.
Trotter had the surgery in May, and said it “went well,” but some complications arose afterward, including kidney failure and inability to eat or walk for a time.
“My body didn’t respond very well in the beginning,” Trotter said. “But I ended up just doing what they were saying. I stayed in the hospital longer than I was supposed to, but we figured things out.”
Meyers noted the somewhat rocky road that patients like Trotter are on once they get a transplant.
“You trade the problem of advanced heart failure for the new problems you acquire with a transplant,” the doctor said.
Transplant rejection is one. According to Meyers, patients who receive a new heart are most likely to reject it “immediately” following surgery. Over time, the chances of that go down, but they never go away.
After surgery, heart transplant recipients go on medications, which they have to take for the rest of their lives. They could also come with side effects, something that could impact Trotter.
“Vanessa and I have a lot of heart-to-heart conversations about all of these issues,” Meyers said.
Trotter worked as an insurance agent before her transplant. Now, she is taking time off, focusing on healing and being with her partner.
“It’s hard for me to focus on finding a job,” Trotter said. “I do love work and plan on going back, but I’m not sure what I want to do. I feel like there’s another calling for me — I just haven’t found it yet.”
She is getting used to the affects a new heart is bringing on her life.
“It’s just so hard to explain how much better I feel,” Trotter said. “You know when you’re really sick and then you feel completely better, you do a 180 (-degree turn).”
She has done some trail-walking, an activity she liked to pursue before her heart failure.
“Being able to walk the whole park, that’s amazing to me,” Trotter said. “I’m getting to the point where I can start jogging again.”
The transplant has made an impact on her emotions, too.
“I feel like I see things clearer; I think differently,” Trotter said. “Having this done and going through this whole process made me realize you only have one life and it’s not helping anyone if you bottle everything up inside.”
Through Trotter’s heart transplant journey, doctors who cared for her, like Meyers, have come to admire her.
“She is one of these rare spirits that has ... always taken lemons and made them into lemonade for herself,” Meyers said. “That was one of the most striking qualities about working with her. She really, to me, is a hero that way, even in her young age was able to deal with things in such a sophisticated, thoughtful and mature way.”
Plumb gave her praise, too.
“Vanessa is one of the most courageous and resilient patients I have ever met,” he wrote in an email. “Her journey has been both heartbreaking and inspiring.”
Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.