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‘Before my heart transplant, I was dying’: Gabriela’s story

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Gabriela Guzman has enjoyed nearly a decade with her family that wouldn’t have been possible without her heart transplant.

My colleagues and I have seen many touching stories of lives regained and hopes attained through the amazing gift of organ donation and advances in transplantation.

One patient who sticks out in my mind nearly a decade after her transplant is Gabriela Guzman, a Fort Worth woman who was near death because of severe heart failure. She had given up hope that she’d see her grandchildren grow up. A heart transplant saved her life and also led to a meaningful and lasting bond with her heart donor’s mother that transcends the bounds of a traditional friendship. I’ve invited Gabriela to share her amazing story below.

‘I just couldn’t bear the suffering anymore’

For several years, I struggled with severe heart failure. No matter what medication my cardiologist in Fort Worth tried, I continued to get worse. During my lowest point, I wanted to give up. I wanted to die. I couldn’t bear the suffering any longer. My family had to help me do everything around the house, and I was perpetually tired. I didn’t have hope. I didn’t have anything. I just couldn’t bear the suffering anymore.

Before my heart transplant, I was dying. In 2004, I suffered two heart attacks and fell into a coma. My doctor took my husband aside and said, “There’s nothing more I can do for her. She’s not responding to the medication. If anyone can save your wife, it will be the specialists in Dallas.” My cardiologist sent me to UT Southwestern, still unconscious, and everyone hoped for the best.

After two or three days at UT Southwestern, my heart team revived me. I was full of wires when I woke up, and I had a pacemaker outside my neck. Dr. Drazner’s was the first face I saw after I awoke, and he immediately made me feel calm. He’s a very special doctor – the best I’ve had throughout my journey with heart failure – and he was there for my family and me through my nearly 18-month wait on the heart transplant list.

During that long wait, I hoped and prayed everything would turn out OK. I’m not going to lie – I was nervous. But I was happy at the same time, and I had a lot of faith that got me through. And then the precious gift came. Dr. Drazner and his team performed my transplant at 6 a.m. on October 31, 2007, and I woke up at 6 p.m. I felt absolutely no pain in my chest from the surgery, and all the doctors were surprised. In fact, I felt better than I had in years – it was truly amazing. I had no complications. No fevers, no high blood pressure, nothing.

Related: Experience a Heart Transplant in 360° 

I spent a week in the intensive care unit, and then I was transferred to a regular room for four days. After that, I went home to begin my recovery and my new life. But little did I know that I was about to start a relationship with one of the most special women I’ll ever know: my donor’s mother.

How I met my donor’s mother

When we found out that I was getting a heart, I was giddy. I knew right away that I wanted to meet my donor’s family if they were willing. I wanted to know the people who gave me my life back. If they hadn’t made that difficult choice, I wouldn’t be here today. I would be dead. 

My heart team told me I could write a letter to my donor’s family before the transplant, and I did so immediately. However, we didn’t send the letter right away because I had a lengthy recovery ahead of me. I wanted to be in fine form when I met the people who gave me a second chance!

In October 2008, about a year after the transplant, I sent the letter. Right away, the family called and said they were eager to meet me as well. My donor’s mother and I both were crying on the phone. She told me, “We live in Corpus Christi, and we want to come see you, but we can take only two people in our vehicle.” I insisted that we would come to her instead!

So, I loaded up my husband and children, and we drove to Corpus Christi. I’ll never forget the emotions of that first encounter. When my donor’s mother and I locked eyes, we both began to cry. I took her hand and put it on my chest. I told her, “Here is your son’s heart. But it’s mine now.” We both laughed, and then we cried together again.

More like family than just a friend

My new friend and I have a bond that goes far beyond friendship. She’s more like family to me. We have such a beautiful relationship. I don’t know how to explain it. We usually talk every other day, and we get together in person twice a year. I love her, my family loves her, and she loves all of us as well.

Though I can never truly feel as though I’ve thanked her enough, I wanted to do something special for her to express my gratitude. Each year, UT Southwestern hosts a beautiful gala for patients who’ve received any type of organ transplant. I try to go every year, and one year, my donor’s mother joined as my plus-one. We met up with Dr. Drazner at the party, and he was thrilled to see us together, thriving, and enjoying our friendship, all of which was made possible by the selfless act of organ donation.

“Honestly, I feel as if I was never sick. Heart transplantation is truly that amazing.”

– Gabriela Guzman

Heart transplant recipient

‘My life today is full of hope’

After my heart transplant, I am doing so well. My life has completely changed – and all for the better. When I was at my sickest, my only wish was to be able to watch my grandchildren grow up. They were 2 and 6 months when I got my transplant. Today, they’re 12 and 11, and I have the energy to play with them and attend their school activities.

Honestly, I feel as if I was never sick. Heart transplantation is truly that amazing. My life today is full of hope. I can do my work around the house. I can take care of my family. I no longer want to give up. Today, I make the most of every day. If you or a loved one is waiting on the transplant list, keep your faith. Miracles do happen, and I am living proof.

Give the gift of life to a family in need

Seeing Gabriela with her donor’s mother at our annual reunion was extremely poignant. You could tell how close they were, and how much it meant to the donor’s mother to know that her son’s heart was keeping Gabriela alive. 

Stories like Gabriela’s remind me of just how amazing and life-changing transplantation can be for patients who have heart failure. And Gabriela was lucky – she received a donor heart just in the nick of time. Unfortunately, a significant number of Texans die before suitable donor hearts become available for transplantation. As of April 26, 2018, more than 4,000 people across the U.S. are on the waiting list for donor hearts, including nearly 400 Texans, according to data from the Organ Procurement Transportation Network.

It’s easy to register as an organ donor. Consider helping people like Gabriela with a selfless act that truly transforms lives.

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