The Challenge: Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy
"You have to do everything you can to have your best second life after a transplant", says Andrea McConaughy, who will celebrate the 20th anniversary of her transplant in August 2016.
Andrea learned that she had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — a type of heart muscle disease — when she was just 14 years old. This disease makes the heart walls thicken, so the heart has to work harder to pump.
Andrea managed her illness with medicine and lifestyle changes, knowing that she might need a heart transplant someday.
Andrea’s family relocated from Illinois to her father’s hometown of Pittsburgh in 1988. Andrea began receiving care from William Follansbee, MD, a cardiologist at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute.
By 1995, Andrea was working in human resources in a small town in eastern Ohio and still managing her heart disease with drugs when she had a transient ischemic attack — also called a TIA or mini-stroke.
Although she recovered on the way to the hospital, Andrea’s parents called Dr. Follansbee, who had her flown to Pittsburgh for evaluation.
The Path to the UPMC Heart Transplant Program
Andrea moved back to Pittsburgh to stay with her parents and receive ongoing care at UPMC.
In the months that followed, her health declined very quickly. Andrea told Dr. Follansbee that she didn’t think she had much time left to live.
“I remember when I met him, I asked him to help me, to save my life,” Andrea says.
The Solution: LVAD as a Bridge to Heart Transplant
The surgeon urged a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, to sustain Andrea until a heart transplant.
She had successful LVAD implant surgery, but needed a second procedure — just a few days later — to remove a blood clot. Once she recovered, Andrea remained in the hospital to wait for a new heart.
“Back then, once you had an LVAD, you stayed in the hospital until your new heart came,” Andrea says. “You didn’t have a lot of control over everyday things, or a lot of privacy.”
To help cope with her restraints, Andrea approached her team of biomedical engineers — highly trained experts in LVAD management — about ways to regain small freedoms.
The team found solutions that allowed Andrea to shower on her own and even attend a Pittsburgh Penguins game with her parents.
Andrea stayed as upbeat as she could during her wait for a transplant, often visiting with other patients who struggled to remain positive.
On August 21, 1996, Andrea learned that another patient — with whom she’d been very friendly — had gotten a transplant that morning.
“I was so happy for her, but it’s hard to watch others come in after you and get transplants before you,” Andrea says. “I had a long cry about my situation, and just a few hours later, my call came. They had a heart for me.”
That night, Andrea had a successful heart transplant. But the next day, her body began to reject the new heart.
Doctors gave her a powerful antirejection drug, which they explained had about a 50-50 chance of keeping her alive. The drug worked, and although she needed another surgery to remove a blood clot a few weeks later, Andrea returned home about one month after her transplant.
The Result: Living Life to its Fullest
In the years that followed, Andrea moved to Florida, got married, and — after extensive tests and a closely watched pregnancy — gave birth to her son Andrew in 2002.
She and her husband Rob adopted their second son, Colin, in 2009, but lost him tragically in 2012 to a brain tumor when he had just turned two.
Throughout her challenges, Andrea has continued to believe in living life to the fullest.
She and her family now live in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they enjoy the city’s sports, museums, and theater.
With family still in Pittsburgh, Andrea comes back often to visit. She remains in close contact with her transplant team and even attended the American Heart Association’s Pittsburgh Heart Ball in February 2016.
“The people who cared for me — the doctors, the nurses, the biomedical engineers — they became like family to me,” Andrea says. “I love them very much, and will always be grateful for what they did.”
Andrea’s treatment and results may not be typical of all similar cases.
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