Heart Transplant Patient Story: Meet Stacey Vernallis
The Challenge: A Healthy Woman with an Unhealthy Heart
In 2013, Stacey Vernallis was a busy trial lawyer, mother of three, and recreational athlete.
She biked, hiked, swam, skied, and kayaked whenever possible. So, when she came home from a business trip with a cough, she thought little of it.
Within days, Stacey noticed that not only was her cough sticking around, but she also had shortness of breath with certain activities.
Stacey went to several doctors. Each gave a different answer for her symptoms, but none suspected a heart problem.
Her risk factors for heart disease seemed to be low. Stacey was fit and active, ate healthy foods, and had never smoked.
By October of that year, Stacey was 54 years old and training for a trek she and her fiancé, Rick, planned to take in Nepal.
Thinking that her symptoms stood in the way of a fun and active trip, Stacey asked for a chest x-ray.
When the results came, Stacey learned she had cardiomyopathy — or heart muscle disease. This disease can make the heart large, weak, and unable to pump blood effectively.
Stacey’s doctor ordered an echocardiogram that same day. The test showed dangerously low heart function.
Because of the cardiomyopathy, Stacey had developed congestive heart failure.
The Path to UPMC’s Heart Transplant Program
On the day of her diagnosis, Stacey contacted Michael Mathier, MD, head of the Section of Heart Failure Pulmonary Hypertension at UPMC’s Heart and Vascular Institute.
Dr. Mathier had treated Stacey’s father for cardiomyopathy for many years. Both of her parents had the heart disease, though not the hypertrophic type — the type often passed down in families.
Dr. Mathier brought Stacey to UPMC Presbyterian to start treatment. She began taking drugs to improve her heart function enough to receive an implanted defibrillator.
But in January 2014, she found herself back in the hospital in severe condition.
The care team placed Stacey on the heart transplant wait list and moved her to intensive care with a failing heart.
To support her heart until a transplant, she received a ventricular assist device (VAD). She also took part in cardiac rehab at UPMC Shadyside to learn how to safely stay active and fit.
Just weeks after her VAD implant surgery, routine bloodwork showed that Stacey’s antibody levels were too high for her to stay on the transplant wait list.
Doctors believed her body would automatically reject a new heart. But Robert Kormos, MD — co-director of UPMC's Heart Transplant Program, and Michael Shullo, Pharm.D — associate director of Heart Transplant, had an idea.
The doctors talked with Stacey about a treatment that might remove enough antibodies to give her a chance at a match with a potential donor. After much thought, she began treatment in early May.
Unfortunately, Stacey experienced a setback when she suffered a stroke that month.
Paramedics rushed her to UPMC Presbyterian, where a multidisciplinary team of doctors worked together to treat her.
Stacey’s senses and abilities slowly returned, and intensive rehab followed.
The Solution: A Heart Transplant
In July 2014, Stacey had a successful heart transplant with Dr. Kormos, Luigi Lagazzi, MD, and their team.
Her donor was a 20-year-old girl — the same age as Stacey’s daughter was at the time.
“Anyone who becomes an organ donor becomes an instant hero,” says Stacey — a registered organ donor herself for years. “It’s one of the easiest things to do to save a life.”
Since her transplant, Stacey works each day to regain her active lifestyle as much as she can.
She has some lasting constraints from her stroke, but takes every opportunity to walk, hike, and even ski.
Stacey and Rick are planning an August wedding in South Carolina.
And, she's begun to ensure that her children will get regular heart screenings with Dr. Mathier as they get older.
Today, Stacey is actively involved in:
“All you have to do is say yes to organ donation, and you’re transforming your neighbors’ lives,” Stacey says.
Stacey’s treatment and results may not be typical of all similar cases.