Although organs are not matched according to race/ethnicity, and people of different races frequently match one another, all individuals waiting for an organ transplant will have a better chance of receiving one if there are large numbers of donors from their racial/ethnic background.
For Jennifer Rohe, the past year has been one for the books. Since last January, she has adjusted to becoming a family of four, endured personal health issues, and experienced a significant change of heart-literally.
This month, Jennifer celebrates the one-year anniversary of her life-saving heart transplant and the end to a tumultuous journey that began 14 months ago.
In November 2017, Jennifer couldn’t have been happier. After a smooth pregnancy, she gave birth to her second child, a beautiful baby girl. The days immediately following her birth seemed to be on the same track. Her daughter was sleeping well, she had no issues breastfeeding, and her 2-year-old son adored his new sister.
“My life was perfect,” Jennifer recalls.
Soon after returning home, however, Jennifer began experiencing extreme shortness of breath and an elevated heart rate. These symptoms brought her back to the hospital, and after running some tests the doctors told Jennifer she was experiencing severe heart failure. The news was shocking. Jennifer was young, healthy, and led an active lifestyle. She was diagnosed with a rare condition called Peripartum Cardiomyopathy (PPCM), which occurs during or immediately following childbirth and weakens the heart to the point that it is not able to pump blood through the body.
On Thanksgiving morning, Jennifer was transferred to the University of Washington Medical Center. She was put on an extreme form of life support that infused oxygen into her blood so her heart didn’t have to work so hard. Unfortunately, her heart function did not improve. She was told her only option was to replace her heart with a temporary artificial heart and be listed for a transplant.
“My experience was a whirlwind compared to most people who have to get transplant. From heart failure diagnosis to transplant was around 50 days,” says Jennifer. “Although the timing was pretty quick, that does not mean it wasn’t eventful.
The artificial heart did serve as an effective bridge to transplantation, but it came with complications. A build-up of blood around the device brought a near brush with death requiring an emergency surgery. Another clot that formed around the device caused a stroke. Fortunately, Jennifer made a full recovery, but said she is still haunted by the experience.
Still, through all the medical emergencies and close-calls, Jennifer says the hardest part was being away from her babies. She was brought to tears with happiness on a cold January day in 2018 when her doctor came into her hospital room and said they had a found a heart match.
A registered organ donor herself, donation was always something she supported. However, the magnitude of the act is much more real to Jennifer now that she has been on the other side.
“When I was in the hospital, I wasn’t sure I would ever get my life back to where it was, but even just a year out I feel so strong and capable of doing almost anything I could before,” says Jennifer.
Today, it’s back to business as usual for Jennifer and her family. Her husband is returning to his residency program and she is able to happily keep up with her two active toddlers. The opportunity to take family trips has been invaluable for Jennifer as they ventured back into travel six months post-transplant.
“Traveling around wasn’t always easy, but it got better the farther I got out from transplant,” she says. “When I think about this past year, I am so grateful for all of the adventures my family and I went on and the memories we made.”
Grateful for her restored health, Jennifer knows that every adventure she takes and each milestone she observes, is made possible because of the selfless gift of her organ donor.
“I think of my donor and their family often and I hope they know how thankful I am for this precious gift of life. I get to see my children grow up and they don’t have to go through life without their mom,” said Jennifer.