Val Bergeron’s heart is no longer beating in her chest. It resides at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver and she can visit it whenever she wants.
She has a new heart thanks to an anonymous donor, an outcome that was very much in doubt just a few short months ago.
Val, and four other members of her family suffer with familial dialated cardiomyopathy (FDC), a disease that took her father when his heart just stopped in 1995.
The cardiac condition causes the heart to become enlarged and is unable to pump blood as efficiently as needed.
When she was diagnosed in 2002, Val’s heart function was down to 11 per cent and she was admitted to hospital.
The next spring, along with her brother Terry and sister Pam, Val was examined by a cardiologist at St. Paul’s Hospital who confirmed all three suffered from FDC.
Subsequently two of her nieces were also diagnosed with FDC.
And so the journey began.
She received her first defibrillator in 2007, then in 2011 a state-of-the-art implant cardiac defibrillator/pacemaker was implanted. By 2009 she was on the transplant list.
In July 2013, Val topped the heart transplant charts right across Canada and carried a pager, ready to rocket down to Vancouver at a moment’s notice. However, the call never came.
This spring her BNP blood test indicated her heart failure rate was alarmingly high which triggered admission to St. Paul’s on April 8.
“They honestly didn’t think I’d get a heart so they were just looking to prolong my life a bit,” Val said.
“They were grasping at straws as to how to help me. Since I’d been at the top of the transplant list for more than 18 months they didn’t think it would happen. Of course they didn’t tell me that.”
The doctors told Val they were looking at transplants that wouldn’t be absolutely ideal but could be made to work but in the meantime they were considering a treatment that would cause the heart to pump a little harder to give her organs better blood circulation.
She admitted she didn’t feel very well at this point but didn’t realize how bad off she really was.
Another intervention came from one of her previous cardiac surgeons who lent his expertise to repairing her FDC in a five-hour surgery on April 21.
For the next nine days, Val remained in St. Paul’s with an uncertain future, however, on April 29 there were hints a heart might be available.
On April 30, preparations began in ernest, Val was getting a heart. When asked if she wanted any sedatives, she refused, calmly.
“I was fine,” she said.
The gurney was wheeled to the operating room at about 9:30 p.m. and again Val refused any sedatives.
“I told them I just wanted to sleep through
it all,” she said with a laugh.
By 3:30 a.m., Val was back in recovery with a new heart beating in her chest.
“They said surgery went well and the heart began pumping as soon as they put it in my chest,” Val reported.
“The first thing I remember is my husband and son coming in about 5:30 a.m. My son said he felt he could finally breath again.”
Ready to resume a normal life, Val struggles with the concept of taking it easy but she knows she must.
By day two of her transplant, she was shuffling to the chair in her room. By May 5 she was moved to the general cardiac ward and by May 9 was given a day pass.
After some checking and medical treatments (staple removal, etc.) Val was released from hospital May 11. She must remain in the Lower Mainland for several months as they keep an eye on her rejection levels and her heart function.
“I have so much respect and gratitude for everyone, the medical community, the transplant team, the donor family and everyone in Quesnel who has been so supportive, I will be patient and be a good patient to honour all that support and effort,” she said sheepishly, although her inclination is to get right back into life.
With the April 21 surgery and all that her body has gone through, Val recognizes it will take time to get back into a full life but she’s more than ready for that.
One of her fondest wishes, now that she has a normal heart, is to become a committed volunteer again.
“We never knew when I’d have to go so I wasn’t able to fully commit but being dependable as a volunteer is very important to me,” she said.
“I’m concentrating right now on being a good patient and allowing my body to regenerate from all the medical issues associated with the old heart.
“But I’m back to so many of the normal things that mean a lot to me, like baking and walking, I’m even attending a healthy heart exercise program.”
Everyone who sees Val comments on how good she looks, how healthy her colour is.
She accepts she’ll be on anti-rejection drugs for the rest of her life and will always be a St. Paul’s patient but her attitude is great and she’s looking forward to normal.
As for her family members who face the same uncertain future Val has endured for 13 years, she knows its a slippery slope they will probably slide down.
Val hopes they also
get the new lease on life that has been granted to her.