Holly Draper, 35, loves her job. As a teacher for students with serious learning disabilities, she coaxes her kiddos into taking turns, practicing manners and making good decisions.
But in the spring of 2017, Holly's students struggled to understand why their beloved teacher wasn't in the classroom. It didn't seem possible that "Miss Holly" was sitting in a hospital bed at The University of Kansas Health System, waiting for a new heart.
It began as a sinus infection
Holly learned about her heart issues almost by mistake. After having an allergic reaction to a sinus infection medication, she ended up in the emergency room at a local hospital. She said her heart was racing, but they sent her home with a pain pill.
About 10 days later, Holly still felt exhausted. Her primary care physician referred her to The University of Kansas Health System.
Cardiologist Andrew Sauer, MD, met Holly shortly after she was admitted.
"By the time she got to us, it was too late to treat her sick heart. She was in cardiogenic shock. Her heart could not pump enough blood to meet her body's needs," explains Dr. Sauer.
Searching for the cause
With no prior history of heart disease, the heart team performed a thorough evaluation to identify any underlying cause that could be responsible for Holly's advanced heart failure. But Holly's test results came back clean.
When there's no explanation for a sick heart, it's called idiopathic cardiomyopathy. According to Dr. Sauer, that's common among young women who need heart transplants.
"Chances are, Holly's heart started getting sick years ago," Dr. Sauer says. "She was young and healthy, so her other organs were able to compensate for her weak heart muscle. But finally, her heart couldn't withstand the strain."
"They told me my heart was functioning at just 5-10%," says Holly. "I needed a new one."
The waiting game
At first, Holly stayed home attached to an IV filled with medicine to keep her heart working. When she grew weaker, Dr. Sauer admitted her to the heart transplant intensive care unit to wait for a donor heart.
"Based on my blood type and heart size, they thought it might take 6 months," says Holly.
As time went by, the nurses became Holly's second family. "It was like being in a dorm," she says. "We played cards in the middle of the night and talked."
Holly also taught her students from her hospital bed. She phoned the classroom and helped the substitute teachers keep the kids in line.
A heart of gold
Just 2 months after her diagnosis, the heart team notified Holly that a heart was available. Holly was fully prepped for surgery and sedated. But although Holly's new heart had looked good on paper, once Holly's Kansas City heart transplant team saw the heart in person, they realized it was not the best heart for her.
"Holly is a young, vibrant lady who has a lot of years ahead of her," explains cardiothoracic surgeon Travis Abicht, MD. We didn't want to take a marginal heart."
When Holly awoke from sedation, the transplant team had to tell her she didn't have a new heart.
"She was mad," says Dr. Sauer. "And she had every right to be."
Donor organs can deteriorate very quickly – making them unusable for transplant. Getting the right heart to the right person within the right amount of time is critical. If too much time passes between the moment a heart is removed from a deceased donor and the time it is placed in a recipient, the heart is no longer viable.
Other problems can make a heart unusable, too. The health of the heart before transplant, the donor's lifestyle choices and the cause of death all affect whether a heart will be healthy enough for transplant. And sometimes, as in Holly's situation, the donor heart may seem like a good fit, but once the heart transplant surgeon examines it, it's not as healthy as had been anticipated.
Making the decision to turn away Holly's new heart wasn't easy for her transplant team – but it was the right choice. In less than 24 hours, another heart was ready."
"Our team showed extreme professionalism in this situation," says Dr. Sauer. "They walked away from a bad heart. And the very next day, Holly got a heart that's perfect for her."
Honoring her donor
Holly gets emotional when she talks about her donor and the donor's family.
"As soon as I got the new heart, I could feel it had a stronger heartbeat," she says. "My donor is my heart hero."
Dr. Abicht thinks Holly is also a hero.
"She rolled with the punches and stayed positive throughout a very complex process," he says.
"Heart transplant is an enormous undertaking," explains Dr. Sauer. "The entire system has to work well together. At any moment, the heart team may need a hand from our neurology, gastroenterology or lung specialists. We're extremely proud of our collaboration and our outcomes."
Spreading the word
Just 3 days after her transplant, Holly traveled room-to-room visiting patients who were waiting for a heart. She also joined the health system's heart transplant support group.
"We call each other brothers and sisters because we're all going through this journey together," says Holly. "No one else knows exactly what it's like."
About 2 weeks after her heart transplant, Holly and her parents participated in the Kansas City Heart Walk. Since then, she's completed 7 5Ks, including one at the Transplant Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Holly walks to honor her donor and spread the word about organ donation.
"Without a donor, I wouldn't be here," she says.
Paying it forward
With her new heart, Holly will continue to make a difference in the lives of her special needs students. She also helps educate the public about organ donation and heart disease as a WomenHeart Champion.
"Holly got a second chance at life, and now she's giving even more to society," praises Dr. Sauer.
Dr. Abicht agrees. "We're lucky to have her around," he says.
As for Holly, she's grateful for her heart donor, the donor's family and the heart team. Of course, there's a very special place in her new heart for those lovable, adorable students.
"I wouldn't have made it through without my kids," says Holly as her voice breaks and her eyes tear up. "I had to get back to my kids. They need me."
Different symptoms for women
Women often experience different heart disease symptoms than men. Our women's heart health program includes experts who are trained to recognize the unique, subtle signs of heart disease in women, such as:
- Cold sweat
- Rapid heart beat
- Nausea or indigestion
- Pressure between the shoulder blades
- Unexplained anxiety, weakness or extreme fatigue
Find out how healthy your heart is.