‘My very own heart’
Outside Elaine Slikkers’ hospital room, the pink sky of a January sunrise brightened the view.
Inside, Elaine glowed with a hope that resonated with every beat of her new heart.
“A new start,” she marveled, gently holding a hand to her chest. The bandage from her heart transplant surgery peeked out above the hospital gown.
“My very own heart. It’s incredible. It is really incredible.”
For years, she lived with an ailing, failing heart that slowly stole her energy and restricted her choices. Now, she looks forward to returning to the active life she once knew.
The surgery that brought a life-saving heart to Elaine also marked a big moment for Spectrum Health: It was the 100th heart transplant performed by the cardiothoracic surgeons of the Richard DeVos Heart and Lung Transplant program.
In the same week, the surgeons also performed the 100th lung transplant.
“It’s a major milestone for our program,” said Theodore Boeve, MD, the surgical director of the heart and lung transplant program and mechanical circulatory support at Spectrum Health.
A second miracle
For Elaine, the transplant represents a miracle―and not the first one she has ever experienced in her battle with heart disease.
“It’s been a journey,” she said. “To get here today is like―wow.”
On the day of her heart transplant, just hours before her surgery, the 62-year-old woman from Holland, Michigan, spoke about the steps that led her to that point. Her husband, Randy, and daughter Erica Griessel sat nearby in her room at Spectrum Health Meijer Heart Center and helped fill in details.
Elaine lived an active life, working as an office manager for the Holland Department of Public Safety. Sometimes, she would go out for a run with her daughters, Erica and Ingrid.
In my prayers, I remember that family that is missing someone right now. What a generous heart and spirit to do something like that.
But in 2012, she developed arrhythmia―an abnormal heart rhythm―that periodically caused her to faint. She received a pacemaker to help regulate her heart rate.
She experienced her Christmas miracle four years ago, at age 58.
On Christmas Day 2013, as she made pumpkin pie, she asked Randy to borrow salt from a neighbor. When he returned to the kitchen, he found her lying on the kitchen floor.
Randy called her name and patted her cheeks. He called 911 and told the dispatcher his wife had fainted.
“Is she breathing?” the dispatcher asked.
Yes, he replied. But as soon as he hung up the phone, he noticed Elaine’s lips were blue. She had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest.
“I started CPR,” he said. “And everything is pretty fuzzy after that.”
The police and firefighters who responded to the emergency call had to shock Elaine’s heart at least three times with a defibrillator, Randy recalled.
Elaine remembers only waking up in the hospital with an intravenous line delivering potassium into her arm. She was so confused at first that Erica had to explain several times what had happened.
“It was just heart wrenching,” Erica said.
Elaine’s doctors replaced her pacemaker with an implantable defibrillator.
Instead of trying to forget that dark day, Elaine chose to honor it. Every year since then, she has celebrated her “second birthday” on Christmas Day.
“The Lord was just good to us,” she said.
About a year ago, she learned the cause of her arrhythmia. Milena Jani, MD, a cardiologist who specializes in advanced heart failure, determined she had sarcoidosis. The inflammatory disease typically attacks the lungs, but in Elaine’s case, it caused scarring in her heart.
She’s a fighter. There’s a lot of toughness behind that smile.
She took medication, had an ablation procedure and underwent physical therapy and cardiac rehab. But still, her heart grew weaker.
“Every doctor appointment, I kept going downhill,” she said. “It didn’t matter what I did.”
As her heart declined, so did her energy level. She retired early from her job. She slowly restricted her activities. A trip to the grocery store would tire her out for the rest of the day.
When her doctors put her on the transplant list in September, she set her sights―and hopes―on a new heart.
“It was scary,” she said. “I just felt like―Is this really going to happen? Am I going to be one of the unlucky ones?”
But Randy saw little fear and uncertainty in his wife.
“She’s kind of the cheerleader in the family,” he said. “She’s a fighter. There’s a lot of toughness behind that smile.”
Her calm demeanor and resilience as she progressed to end-stage heart failure made an impression on her cardiologist, too.
“Even with these procedures and in and out of the hospital, she was still calm,” Dr. Jani said. “There was never a moment of ‘I lose faith’ or ‘This is it. I’m done.’ She has such a good attitude about everything.”
For Elaine, a competitive spirit proved helpful in the battle with heart disease.
“I don’t give up easily,” she said. “I just thought when God had the right heart for me, it would happen.”
In December, amid shopping and wrapping and planning for holiday gatherings, she suffered another setback. She began to have irregular rhythms that threatened her weakened heart muscle.
She was admitted to the Meijer Heart Center on Dec. 20. She received an unexpected gift the day after Christmas when heart transplant surgeon Marzia Leacche, MD, paid a visit.
“She said, ‘We have a possible donor,’” Elaine recalled. “It was so unreal.”
A heart arrives
The next evening, a black Cadillac Escalade pulled up to the emergency department entrance of Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, lights flashing and siren blaring. Its cargo: Elaine’s donor heart.
The medical team rushed the heart into the operating room where Elaine lay, ready for her new heart. Her old heart lay in a basin nearby, and a heart-lung machine kept blood circulating through her body.
The surgical team, led by Dr. Leacche, assisted by Dr. Boeve, placed the heart in her chest and began to connect it to the veins and arteries.
Two paddles placed on the heart shocked it into motion.
“Then the heart took off and became independent and supported her,” Dr. Boeve said.
That moment never fails to impress, he said.
“For a transplant surgeon, it’s the most amazing thing,” he said. “It’s amazing that a heart can be out of the body for almost four hours and just have blood go through it and have it return to normal strength.”
Prayers for the donor
When she woke up after the surgery and realized she had a new heart, Elaine felt a strong sense of relief.
“It was cool to wake up and realize it was all done,” she said. “There is none of that waiting anymore.”
And she felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the gift she received.
“In my prayers, I remember that family that is missing someone right now,” she said. “What a generous heart and spirit to do something like that.”
Several days after transplant, a nurse helped her get up and walk down the hall―her first steps since she received her new heart. Although she knows many more steps lie ahead, Elaine looks forward to tackling them and growing stronger. She relishes the challenge.
She and Randy talk about the possibilities the new heart opens up for her, like playing with the granddaughters, going for a run with her daughters and traveling to Florida and Seattle.
Seeing patients embrace plans for the future is especially rewarding for the members of the transplant team.
“In many cases, the disease of heart failure has depleted their energy, their muscle mass, their weight and their other organ function,” Dr. Boeve said. “To see them go from (that) to just full of life is incredibly satisfying.”
A New Year’s heart
As they sat in the hospital room, talking about the future, Randy borrowed a stethoscope from Elaine’s nurse.
“I haven’t listened to your heart yet,” he said.
Leaning over his wife, he placed the stethoscope on her chest and listened silently for a moment. When he spoke, his voice came out in a whisper.
“That is awesome,” he said.
Elaine smiled up at him. “Wow,” she said.
This is her second miracle, she said. And now she has a third birthday to celebrate.
“The timing is so wonderful,” said her daughter Erica. “Our Christmas miracle and New Year’s heart.”