A Journey from Cancer Warrior & Heart Transplant Recipient to Bad Ass Survivor
Author: A New Heart Rocks (Heart of Gold)
Bone cancer, Heart Transplant, Breast Cancer, Grand Mal Seizure, Blood Clots are just some of the issues I've battled recently. This blog is an account of my journey (I'm always on some sort of "journey") through the morass of my life with mindfulness to have a sense of humor and a mostly positive attitude.
Leading up to and after my heart transplant, I relied on Facebook to share updates on my health. This now 2 year old post is from November 30, 2016. I’m “reposting” it here because I think it’s very telling about my life after transplant.
I’m not cured, rather 8 months post transplant I’m still healing, while I’m also dealing with my 1st ever seizure, new breast cancer diagnosis, surgery and my Mum battling Stage IV Ovarian Cancer. She would die 7 months later, two days prior to my 41st birthday. I still cry when I think too much about my Mum because I miss her so much. In fact, I’m crying as I write this…. 🙏💗🌸🕊
Facebook Post, 11/30/2016
I hope to move back home to Austin soon. I’m healing well from what I’m calling my “2016 Election Seizure.” Jokes aside, a Grand mal seizure is intense…3 weeks later and I still have aches! Seizure seems to be result of a medication side effect. My dislocated shoulder is fine & I’m coming off my sedating anti-convulsant (since it was a 1 time, provoked seizure, with no brain trauma per MRI).
It’s challenging not being able to drive until early February (which, ironically will be my 1yr heart transplant anniversary). I feel like my freedom has been taken away. I’m relying on friends, family & Uber. I also can’t swim or bathe unsupervised and no climbing ladders or operating machinery. No gutter cleaning or weed whacking for me [as if].
One of my doctors, checked my medical alert bracelet (this happens often actually…). Anyway the MD stated, I might need to ADD seizures to my list on my ID. I laughed and told her, I think at somepoint it might just read, “Diagnosis: I’m fucked!” Lmao. I gotta laugh.
I learned today that I’m not a candidate for a radiation clinical trial, this is no surprise to me. Esp, as rads are what caused my breast cancer (since I have no genetic breast cancer markers & cancer is in radation zone from bone cancer, which is genetic). It’s all late effects.
A mastectomy remains planned for the spring (April, I meet with surgeons again). They got the cancer out in October with a lumpectomy, but more needs to be done to protect me from future recurrence. I’m not worried about the cancer, it’s the surgeries that are tough.
My current goal is to avoid the hospital and all illnesses. I think I’ve been hospitalized 4 or 5 times since Labor Day…even for the common cold.
My other goal(s) is to experience JOY.
Joy in being with my family and friends. Joy in planning my countless trips I want to take, all over the world (for now, I want to have a stateside “Bon Voyage to my Boobies Beach Bash”). And joy in being home with my husband, my beloved.
Something else on my mind is what’s next for me? What do I do when I return to civilian life? What is my next vocation if I’m not a professional patient? Just what’s on my mind.
Thank you for reading this long update and for your support. Your every Like and comment is read, absorbed and deeply appreciated. I don’t feel as alone in this journey.
Thank you for reading this blog on a post. It remains true to this day: I read all your comments and every “like” brings me joy.
Last week was difficult. While I got the all clear to finally drive again after shoulder surgery, I also got a PICC line for IV antibiotics. I have recurrent drug resistant urinary tract infections (UTI’s). I’ve done this so many times, I’m bored with it.
I’m also angry because I’ve had to cancel trips that I was really looking forward too, including an autumn extravaganza wedding and Turkey Day with my family. Canceling my plans is painfully familiar and also boring.
Sorry to pout but I’m reminded all too often how many things are out of my control and that a heart transplant is not some miraculous cure to all that ails me. Sigh.
Well for the next 4-6 weeks my goal is to focus on one thing a day that brings me joy. Today I had brunch with a friend & laughed and laughed & laughed!
#alwaysbuystripinsurance Me with a PICC and an antibiotic medicine ball. The ball is more convenient than hanging an IV bag.
Are you trying to decide between lumpectomy vs mastectomy? Unilateral vs bilateral? To have reconstruction or be flat chested?
It’s fucking overwhelming. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what I did.
I was diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) only three months after my Heart Transplant.
I had just turned 40 years old and I had a routine mammogram. It was shocking, considering all the testing that they did pre-transplant and they didn’t find breast cancer?! Come on!
Normal treatment for DCIS is radiation treatment only, but I had already reached my lifetime maximum rad dose, so I was recommended to have a mastectomy. But of course…
When I was a teenager I had Askin Sarcoma and the chemo and radiation caused all of these late effects, such as DCIS. Anyway…
The worst part of the breast cancer diagnosis was waiting an agonizing 7 months for my 1 year post heart transplant anniversary to have a mastectomy surgery. If you survive after 1 year of a heart transplant your lifetime survival rate is higher. I call this time in my life: ripping off the slowest band aid ever.
So I had a lumpectomy, while I waited for the mastectomy because this surgery was not as invasive.
But a mastectomy loomed. For over six months, I contemplated bilateral vs unilateral mastectomy.
I chose to have a bilateral (both breast) mastectomy. Even though cancer was detected in one breast, I wanted to be as symmetrical as possible. This was just a personal choice.
I also chose a bilateral mastectomy, so I wouldn’t have to worry about possible future breast cancer in my remaining breast. Let’s face, my odds have not been in my favor.
Finally, I decided on a bilateral mastectomy because I was encouraged to have this difficult surgery while I was 40 years old with a new heart, rather than 60 years old with a old transplanted heart. Made sense to me, but they were willing to do only one breast and the decision was all mine.
The mastectomy surgery went as planned. I was told “I hit the pain pump a lot,” but I didn’t care because I was comfortable.
After expanders and taking a couple months to heal, I had reconstructive surgery with gel implants (they don’t do saline implants with mastectomies). Six months later I got 3D nipple tattoos (my first ever tattoo, I’m a bad ass now).
I also got an infection nearly every step of the way. Do not let this dissuade you from having surgery.
I’m on immunosuppressive drugs to make sure I don’t reject my heart transplant, so for me healing is very slow and risk of infection is high. I was hospitalized one time for a breast related infection and had to do a few rounds of oral antibiotics. My nipple tattoos got infected and scarred, so now they look very realistic! 😁 I love my nipple tattoos.
I didn’t know I would get infections (which were all managed), so I just took it one step at a time.
I’m especially glad I got 3D nipple tattoos because I look more normal and this was very important to me, especially as I don’t look like myself due to prednisone and 50 lbs weight gain. I look in the mirror or put on a shirt and feel so much better than I did when I was flat chested after the mastectomy and before the reconstruction… its not vanity, breast are parts of my body.
No one would judge you for wanting to look not disfigured. Whatever you choose is the right decision for you.
I hope that my experience was in some small way helpful to your decision making. Be well and drop me a line. 🎗
5am. Today’s the day for my long awaited shoulder surgery! Dr. Khazzam (bam!) will be “staple gunning” my dislocating shoulder back on and then doing a bone transfer to repair the bone knocked away from each of my 6 dislocations. Adam is at my side and here’s our obligatory hospital picture, were both blurry eyed due to the obscenely early hour! It will be a long recovery and, frankly, I’m dreading being in a sling for 3 months, only using one arm and unable to drive. I got this! And let’s face it, with Adam and my Tribe (you) lifting me up, I can do anything (and it could be worse). Be well and I’ll post soon! “Think happy thoughts and you’ll fly.” -Peter Pan ❤️
Last week, I was at a resturant during a large gather of visually impaired individuals. As the state capital, Austin has a large community of those whom are visually impaired, deaf & hard of hearing individuals.
The group was in a party room in the back of the restaurant. To get to the restroom, exit & to their tables was a sea of tables & chairs. The servers were helpful guiding patrons, but they couldn’t help everyone. Diners kept their heads down as people with white canes attempted to make their way through the obstacles towards the exit. It was upsetting to witness so much diffused responsibility.
Some ppl adhere to the “mind your own business” attitude & others, like myself, are compelled to offer assistance. I don’t seek kudos, but I do hope this is a reminder that we live in a world of vulnerable people and if you are able, then you have a RESPONSIBILITY to offer your assistance & compassion. It starts a home. ❤️♿🇺🇸
Prior to getting listed on the Heart Transplant Waitlist, I was required to meet with a hospital financial counselor to discuss my ability to pay for the transplant and the annual cost of my care.
Let’s talk money.
They don’t talk about insurance authorization or the cost of transplant during Grey’s Anatomy. What I am telling you is the reality.
You must have financial resources (insurance and cash on hand) to have a heart transplant in the US.
I did not pay $1.2 million dollars because I have health insurance. Though, it has been a financial struggle for me to maintain continuous insurance coverage in my lifetime (especially during times of under and un-employment), but as a childhood survivor of cancer I knew it might save my life (and it did).
Below, I’ve broken down the cost of the $1.2 million dollars. I’ve included both annual expectation and one-time cost of a heart transplant.
$35,000 Annual Cost of Anti-rejection Medication
You must be able to afford the cost of anti-rejection medications, which costs $35,000 annually for the rest of your life. Did I mention this is the cost every year?
If you can not demonstrate the resources to pay for post-op care, then you may not be a candidate for transplant. You need reliable transportation to get to/from appointments, including airfare and hotel if you’re far from the hospital.
Typically a heart transplant is not the immediate emergency room situation that is portrayed on TV. The Transplant Team will evaluate your case at their weekly meeting to discuss your overall medical need, financial resources and social support system prior to getting on the Waitlist.
$5,700-$15,000 minimum in annual insurance premiums plus co-pays & Max out-of-pocket
If you don’t have insurance, then you might be able to get some charity funding or in some states you may qualify for state-funded high risk insurance, but you may need to do some sort of fundraising (think GoFundMe).
If you are private pay, you will be expected to pay in advance. The hospital may want to see your bank account (yep), prior to getting on the Waitlist.
The financial counselor at my Transplant hospital stated that they like to see at least $40,000 in your bank account, if you’re private pay (an outrageous thought!).
I had to laugh with stress when they gave us a handout on “How to do Fundraising for Your Heart Transplant,” as if I had the bandwidth for such an undertaking.
$10,000 Travel & Lodging
For two years during the workup through post-op care, I lived 3 hours away from my home. My insurance company would not pay for a transplant in my hometown (talk about stressful), but it would reimburse me and my Caregiver for transplant-related travel and lodging FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE, up to $10,000.
I’ve met many Recipients who rent apartments or live in extended stay hotels near their transplant hospitals. If you have to fly to the Mayo clinic for transplant check-ups for the rest of your life, insurance may reimburse you for your flights, rental car and hotels.
I have a transplant friend (she had a double lung transplant) that flies from Central Texas to Phoenix every 3 months. She and a caregiver drive the 26 hours during flu season to avoid infection.
$50,000-$70,000 Work Up
The “work-up” can take days or weeks; it includes all the testing and meeting with countless Specialists to determine if you are a good candidate medically to endure a heart transplant. You may also get a second work up opinion, which means these tests may be repeated and likewise, the cost will double ($140,000).
Tests include cardiac catheterizations, MRI/CT Scans and consultation with every medical specialty you can possibly imagine, including the dentist. You must have good teeth and not have gum disease to be eligible for a transplant. There is a correlation between gum disease and heart problems.
This is the cost of performing surgery on the Donor to remove the organ and then transport it to the Recipients’ hospital. Hearts are transported in a cooler (often red and white) on dry ice. The cooler is carried by a medical professional (a surgeon or nurse). The organ may be flown on a commerical or private airplane, if needed. Once the organ is received a transplant cardiologist must exam it for viability for transplant. All this must be done within 4-6 hours. It’s a time sensitive procedure. The Donor does not pay for any costs related to organ donation.
$70,000 Transplant Surgery
This is just to pay for the cardiac thoracic surgeon and team to perform the transplant surgery.
Anesthesia during the surgery is the single most expensive cost of a heart transplant.
$140,000 Post-Operative Care for 6 Months/Cardiac Rehab/Cardiac Bioposies/Surviellance
The first few weeks I was out of the hospital I saw my Transplant team in clinic 3 times a week!
It was a physical challenge to walk, get in the car and then spend nearly a full day, getting blood work, echos and meeting with multiple disciplines. They call this “Surviellance,” and I would say I was watched closely.
About 2-3 months after I’d healed from the transplant surgery, I was strong enough for Cardiac Rehab. This is supervised exercise 3 times a week by nurses and exercise physiologists.
$640,000 Hospital Stay
I was in the hospital for 30 days and half the time I was in the ICU.
Patients are in the hospital for a heart transplant between 15 to 45 days with the average stay around 22 days; during this time the Recipient will be in the ICU. I also spent 4 days on life support (aka ventilation), this is the highest level of care in a hospital and most expensive, because it’s one-on-one nursing and requires technical care.
The above linked article suggests that the successful outcome of the patient is based on the experience of your hospital, so I encourage you to do some research on the Heart Transplant program you choose: it could be a matter of life or death.
If you found this article helpful, please click “like,” and/or leave me a comment.
Here is my most viewed YouTube video on the cost of transplant:
I dislocated my shoulder for the..um…6th time. I was in the pool and I rested my arm up on the ledge, the perfect angle to pop it out of socket. I knew instantly that I made the wrong move, despite my gentle efforts to prevent this from happening.
The intensity of the pain has not lessened at all with the high number of dislocations, this time I was nauseous from the pain and thought I might faint. Though I was able to stay alert and after a few muscle spasms it went back into the socket. I credit this to the benefits of physical therapy.
I was able to collect myself with the help of my husband and neighbor, Tracie, whom got to witness blood curdling screams. I eased into the car and headed to the ER, dripping wet in my swimsuit.
Adam grabbed me a change of clothes and I popped a pain pill. I was seen quickly in the ER, to my great relief. X-rays revealed it was back in place. By this time, I suspected as much because I was able to hold a conversation, which is typically not possible when I’m in that much pain. It’s usually instant pain relief when the shoulder is back in place, but this time I couldn’t be sure it was back in the socket. When the injury occurred I heard crunching sounds and feared I had shattered my shoulder, but it was just a garden variety dislocation.
My shoulder surgery is scheduled in the next six weeks and I guess I will just have to hold on tight until then, literally.