Renee C. Houghton - Overcomer
Renee is a heart transplant survivor and this is her true story of hope and overcoming obstacles.
Through times of trouble, pain and immense challenges, a shining light of hope and faith can burn bright. As I share my story, I hope you will too.
A little over two years ago, I unexpectedly became very ill and almost did not survive. At the age of 46, I was diagnosed with myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). I spent 21 days in the CVICU and 35 days in the hospital fighting each day to live. My doctors still do not have a clear reason for how I contracted Myocarditis, but it did not matter as the damage was done leaving me in heart failure.
I still had hope that I could beat this. I would always have a degree of heart failure, but I believed my heart could recover and minimize the long-term impacts from the Myocarditis. I began educating myself and making the lifestyle changes needed to support a healthy heart. It is unfortunate it took a near death experience for me to make these changes like diet and more exercise, but at least I was doing it now. As the months past, my healing continued to elude me, and medication therapy was not working. All that aside, the one thing I realized is I could still have hope. This hope became my light shining in the darkness of my struggles and sometimes disappointment. I knew that with this hope and the power of positive thinking, I could get through this no matter what lied ahead. I would overcome.
A year past and my cardiologist performed some tests to see how my heart was functioning. Although struggling with many heart failure symptoms, I would not let myself get discouraged. I was filled with an almost excitement to get the results feeling like my ejection fraction (how much blood the left ventricle pumps out with each contraction) must have improved. Then my doctor delivered the unexpected news. My left ventricle had weakened even more with a lower ejection fraction then the previous test. In sum, I had entered advance heart failure with little hope of improving. When he said little hope, my whole world seemed to fall apart. Hope was the one thing I held on to all these months. What did he mean little hope? He then began to talk about advanced therapies that included the acronym LVAD and even the word transplant. After further consultation with other doctors including those on the transplant team, it was decided to try some additional medications combined with cardiac rehabilitation. There was hope after all.
I proceeded with the new plan. I arrived at cardiac rehab full of life, hope and positive thinking. After my first week, I remember the director of the program personally coming out onto the work out floor to meet me. She called me an inspiration to others and said my positive, happy attitude was going to get me through. I continued with the program, but there were ups and downs. There were days that I was too weak and short of breath to exercise and would be sent home only to show up the next day and try again. I continued to try and try until my care team determined that I could not continue with rehab any longer. Then I sank deep in a sadness. I let fear, and a sense of hopelessness start to enter my world. I had a choice to make. Wake up and be miserable and wallow in self-pity or wake up and take control of my situation for the better health and a better quality of life. I set out to develop resources I needed to adjust, recompose, innovate and prevail from the continuing challenges that confronted me. That is when I reached out to a therapist for help. I believed it was just as important to be healthy physically as it was emotionally.
As additional months went by, I found myself going in and out of the hospital and could no longer work. That is when my care team approached me while again back in the CVICU. They told me I was in end stage heart failure, and the next step was to evaluate me for a heart transplant. That moments still lives vividly in my memory. A heart transplant? My heart had sustained my wonderful life for 47 years, and now your telling me it is going to fail? That was a difficult day for me and family. It is not an easy black and white decision of do I live, or do I die. It is more a question of the quality of life that awaits you. That quality of life I so desired would result from complex surgery and dealing with things like being immune suppressed, new norms and a lot of meds for the rest of the happy life I wanted to live. Is it worth the risks? Absolutely it is! Although a heart transplant is not a cure, it was the best option if I wanted to see my two little girls grow up and my husband’s hair turn grey. I was going to fight and overcome as I certainly was not going to give up and fail.
I went through the transplant evaluation process with all the tests and meeting so many people including social workers and the transplant team’s psychologist. I remember the physiologist asking me how I felt about getting a heart transplant, and the look on his face when I replied joyfully, “I am excited.” I was excited because I was tired of living with end stage heart failure. I was tired of not being able to go up the stairs without becoming very short of breath. I did not want to miss any more of my girls’ activities because I was too physically tired to even get out of bed somedays. I also did not want to live with the fear that my heart could just stop one day. I was ready for a new heart and a new start. He reminded me how difficult a transplant recovery could be, but that did not discourage me. I told him I was an overcomer. I am realistic, and I knew recovery would have its ups and downs, but what awaits me once I get through the process is a life without heart failure. He then asked how I would feel walking into the hospital after receiving the call a donor had been found. Another easy question I thought. I told him I would no doubt be emotional, but over the moon with happiness and thrilled that a match had been found for me. I would also be at peace. Peace with the surgery, recovery and all that would await me and my family. A heart transplant is a special gift. One that could not be taken for grant it. I was ready to make the commitment – a life long commitment.
I was put on the transplant list on 11/28/18 with much anticipated excitement as my family rejoiced and settled in for “the wait.” Waiting for the phone call a donor had been found can be a difficult time for everyone never knowing when that time come could come. Then things took another turn as my condition quickly deteriorated. With in a couple of weeks of being listed, my doctors said I needed to be admitted into the hospital and wait for my heart there. This was a very unnerving time for me and family, but we knew it was the right decision. Then the unexpected happened. The night before I was to go into the hospital, I collapsed going into a VTECH storm. I already had a defibrillator implanted, but it never had gone off until now. As my husband called 911, my defibrillator continued to go off over and over again. I would receive 40 shocks in 40 minutes. A record of sorts I am sure, and not one I want to hold. I woke up the next day in the CVICU with a balloon pump and moved up on the transplant list as I was very ill. At this point, people seemed to expect me to feel sorry for myself or in a state of despair. Is it possible that people can forget how to have hope? After all the disappointments I had experienced with my health, one would expect that I would fear being let down again and essentially avoid hope. But to me, hope means having faith whether you are religious or not, believing that are all things are possible including getting a new heart and overcoming heart failure. Hope forever. Positive thinking is incredibly powerful and truly can make a difference in one’s outcome. When I felt myself wanting to cry, I would decide to smile instead a sign of true strength. Even though we live in a world where trouble is inescapable, you can make a choice – a choice to be in good cheer. Don’t wish this time of uncertainty away as good can come out of everything we endure. I could not let my past or present suffering cloud my view of the future. I had to believe good things were in store for me including a long, happy life with my family.
Then a miracle happened, prayers were answered, and hope was realized. In the early evening just four days after being admitted into the hospital, my transplant coordinator called me. An offer for a heart that was a match to me was being made. I was overcome with emotions. I was going to get a new heart. It was a long night waiting to be taken to the operating room. I had to wait for a surgical team to go and evaluate the heart to make the official decision they would bring it back for me. I laid in my bed, holding my husbands’ hand with a smile on my face. I was going to make it through this. In the early morning hours as they prepared to roll me into the Operating Room, I kissed my husband, and then raised my fist in the air and sang out, “I got this.” I underwent heart transplant surgery on 12/22/18, and my new heart took its first beats in side me at 10:15 am. Three other lives were saved that night by my donor, my hero. I had a new heart and a new start. Hope and positive thinking prevailed.
It has been 9 weeks now, and I am doing very well. My heart which I call my happy heart is beating strong and currently showing no signs of rejection. Recovery can be very challenging and there can be some bumps along the way, but that is okay. If I can overcome all that I have endured thus far and even faced my own mortality, I will make it through recovery, adapt to the new norms and a lifelong commitment that comes with the special gift of life I received. I am excited for what lies ahead, and where my story will take me next. The one thing that remains constant is I still have hope for a bright future as my light shines even brighter now. I hold tighter to the believe that you can get through anything when you stand strong, believe and never loose faith or hope. We are stronger and braver than we realize. The human spirit is an incredible thing and can triumph over anything. You too can be an overcomer.