This May, we celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the first heart transplant performed at Lurie Children’s (formerly Children’s Memorial). Aimee Zabrin, one of our first heart transplant recipients, shares her story.
At the age of two, I was diagnosed with rhabdomyasarcoma, a tumor in my chest and liver. At stage three, the doctors didn’t give my parent’s much hope. After an intense amount of experimental chemotherapy and radiation, I was in remission with a slightly weakened heart muscle as my only lasting side effect.
For years, I was a normal kid – dancing, figure skating, riding bikes with my friends. My only limitation was I couldn’t lift weights or run long distances. After what I had been through, I considered myself lucky.
At the age of 14, I had just started my second semester of high school. I was keeping busy with classes all day followed by sports, musicals or dance after school. During this time, I came home from school, innocently watching TV, when my mom noticed I was out of breath. Of course, when she asked if I was ok, my answer was yes, but she brought me to my long time cardiologist for a second opinion.
We all knew the news wasn’t good. After having been to my yearly cardiology checkup only a few months prior, the function of my heart went from stable to almost non-existent. I was admitted to Lurie Children’s (then Children’s Memorial) for a week to see if medication would help.
A week later, the meeting came that I will never forget. There was a small break room at the end of the 7th floor where my parents, uncle, and cardiologist told me that in order for me to live, I would need a heart transplant. Heart transplant? No one had heard of heart transplants the way you hear of transplants now. As a 14 year old, many things were running through my head.
Once I got over the initial shock of it all, I thought to myself if this is what it takes to keep going, then let’s get that heart. During my almost six month wait for my heart, not once did I ever give up believing that a heart would come. I truly believe that attitude is what got me through.
Waiting for her heart
At the beginning of month five, I caught a cold in the hospital that spiraled out of control due to the fact I had an ailing heart. My days and nights began to blur and I was in and out of the intensive care unit (ICU). I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t walk from exhaustion. I became more and more sick.
My team of doctors convinced me to get put on a ventilator. They told me it would help me breathe easier and I could rest. I didn’t realize at the time that my doctors didn’t know if I had minutes or hours to live.
I remember like yesterday being in a small curtained off room in the ICU at the old hospital on the 2nd floor with my parents in the room. I would tell them I loved them and they never knowing I would wake up again.
After my long wait, the hospital informed my family (as I was unconscious) that they had found a heart for me. My team flew to recover the heart and I was prepped for transplant surgery. The surgery lasted for many hours and unfortunately wasn’t a perfect fit. Three days later, I was being prepped for my second heart transplant.
I never discount for a minute that the person’s whose heart I received first played an integral part in saving my life. I was so sick that a heart a little too big had some extra power to start kicking my body back into shape as I was begging to shut down prior.
On May 3, 1994, I received the second heart transplant- the one I still have today, 24 years later. My doctors told my family that if they could have designed a heart on a computer for me, this is what they would have created.
Life after transplant
From the moment I awoke, I knew I had a long recovery. My muscles all completely atrophied, so I couldn’t even move a finger. But that didn’t matter, I persevered and told myself that I would always be thankful for the family whose child’s heart I have, but it wasn’t going to define me. Every day I am grateful for the gift of life I received and honor that gift by living the most of out of life.
After my transplant, I left home and attended four years of university and graduated with a Bachelor of Science. I started my career working for Mayor Daley and then transitioned into real estate and now I’m the Director of Marketing, overseeing strategy and design for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Chicago.
My personal life has been good to me as well. I met my husband Bradley in 2009. After a long three year journey, we welcomed our triplets into the world in December 2014 via a gestational carrier. I like to call them our miracle babies – as it’s a miracle I was able to use my own genetic eggs after all the chemo and radiation I went through as a baby. My identical boys, Jordan and Shane and my daughter Annie have been nothing but true joy to watch grow and I feel so incredibly lucky and gracious that I get to be their mom.