Tuesday, May 20, 2014
By DANA LARSEN A Pilot Tribune series
Some of her first words coming out of heart transplant surgery reflected a mix of emotions.
“She said how thankful she was to receive a donor heart, and how sad she was that someone else had to go through a tragedy for this to be possible,” said the recipient’s mother.
Aspen Weiderholt’s family talked with the Pilot-Tribune Sunday, three days after the successful transplant took place in Omaha.
The Alta teenager is still considered in critical condition, as her medical team monitors her around the clock for signs of rejection. Such caution is normal in such cases.
“We knew we would be trading one set of issues for another,” mother Kara said.
Her medical team commented about how faint Aspen’s voice is, but those who know her know it has was weaker as she awaited the donor heart.
“It was like, ‘What, are you kidding?’ This is the first time I’ve really been able to hear her voice in a long time,” she said.
More important is another sound.
Shortly after the surgery, hugging her daughter while she lay in a recovery bed, Kara said the for the first time in her life, she could hear and feel a heartbeat in her daughter’s chest. “It was amazing.”
Aspen has lived with severe heart issues since birth. Her own heart was weak, and if you could listen to it, it would stutter with murmurs and clicks as it struggled to sustain her.
“For the first time I felt her toes and they were warm. They’re pink, instead of purple.”
Many thought that perhaps Aspen had received a heart from Cole Buchholz, a popular Storm Lake teacher who passed away after a sudden illness, also in Omaha, at about the same time Aspen’s family was summoned to the hospital. In fact, members of both Aspen’s and Cole’s families thought initially that this might be the case.
However, Kara said that a physician later confirmed the Cole was not the donor, but that his heart was apparently going to another person in need. Kara believes Cole’s heart was transplanted in an operation that followed Aspen’s by only a couple of hours.
The two families have posted on each other’s websites, and feel some connection, Kara said, unable to stop tears when speaking of the loss of the teacher.
The name of Aspen’s donor has not been released, as per medical policy, designed to protect the privacy of donor families and ensure they have time to grieve. Eventually, the donor family will be able to contact Aspen and her family if they wish.
Kara said that their family had only been told, unofficially, that the heart may have been donated by a teenage boy who had died as the result of an accidental incident. He was said to be a kind-hearted youngster, a devout Christian who kept a Bible in the backpack he carried to school.
“It is even more amazing to me that a family faced the tragic loss of a child would think at that moment to make such a selfless gift to help others. The thanks we have for that family… I don’t have the words.”
As for Aspen, in typical fashion, she’s eager to get on with things. She wanted her breathing tube out immediately after surgery, and can’t stand the idea of being confined to bed for a time. She’s as active as it is possible to be while hooked up to all manner of medical devices.
“She was in disbelief for the first couple of days. What had happened didn’t really set in for her until Sunday,” Kara said.
At first, Aspen said in her near whisper, it was a “surreal” feeling knowing that someone else’s heart was beating in her chest.
Still, she was the one person who was not surprised when the call came.
Just days before, visiting her doctor, she had been told that her antibodies were high and had not budged despite various treatments. She was told that she would be on the waiting list for a long time, and that she may as well resign herself to living life with her damaged heart as best she could.
She wasn’t buying it.
“Don’t worry. I’m getting a heart, soon,” she assured her doctors and relatives matter-of-factly. “I’m getting a heart.”
“It was like someone was sitting on her shoulder telling her it was going to be okay,” Kara said.
Days later, the call came, with her surgeon reporting that the donor heart was a “once in a lifetime match.”
“There are certain antibodies that only certain people have. These two were an amazingly perfect match,” Kara said.
The happiness for Aspen’s family continues to be tempered by sorrow for the loss to a family they do not know. They try to keep that emotion from Aspen, but she feels it herself.
Little brother Jamie helps to keep things light. He celebrated his 13th birthday at the hospital on Sunday with quite vocal enthusiasm for his sister’s new ticker. “Best birthday present ever,” he crowed.
The ultimate devotee of the medical show “Grey’s Anatomy,” Aspen has watched the program religiously. With plans for future studies and a career in the medical field, as her condition has limited her, she has passed time by taking diseases addressed on the program and studying them online. She has even received well-wishes and memorabilia from the show’s cast. The night of her transplant, the show featured the story of a teenage girl undergoing a transplant.
“It’s so crazy weird, but then again, we’re a weird family,” Kara smiles.
Aspen is doing “awesome” in her recovery, despite a few small setbacks, which are to be expected. She still faces a long road ahead, and doctors are offering no timeline, preferring to take things one day at a time.
“Aspen being Aspen, we would not be surprised if she were able to go home in three or four weeks,” Kara said.
The family has gladly shared its situation, in hopes of giving hope to others. They have even posted photos of Aspen’s old and new hearts online.
“From the looks of it, you couldn’t imagine how she could have lived with her heart as long as she did,” Kara said.
In fact, doctors have told the family that two or three years ago, with technology as it was, she would not have been considered a candidate for a transplant, and would have had little hope for long-term survival.
Aspen is only thinking ahead to when she can be active again and resume her studies.
“She’s so strong. I have no idea where it comes from. I tell her that if she could bottle a little bit of that for the rest of us, it would be cool,” Kara said.
She also believes that Aspen’s grandparents, who died when she was young, deserve a little credit too. “She has come through 12 open heart surgeries. I’m a firm believer that they are looking down and saying, ‘You have to take care of this one,'” Kara says.
Aspen’s attitude is also markedly changed since her latest ordeal. She once tended to be somewhat impatient. “She’s mellowed out,” family members say.
The family hopes that having gone through so much may put Aspen in a position to help others – perhaps talking to other young people who face serious health situations, and encouraging people to be organ donors.
“She’s been given a new lease on life. The things she has been through and felt, she is still the most positive person I’ve ever known,” Kara said.
As she was being wheeled to surgery, her family relates, Aspen gave them a grin.
“I got this,” she said.