By Kathy Schmidt
I always thought of myself as a confident and competent woman, but it wasn’t until I was faced with death did I realize how BOLD I really was, and needed to be, to stay alive.
I was in my mid-20’s, a healthy recent college graduate enjoying the fun of living and working in LA when one night my life was turned upside down. Feeling faint while out dancing with my then boyfriend (now husband) and his friends visiting from Minnesota at a club in the Marina, out of the blue I experienced a sudden cardiac death episode! I didn’t know it at the time but sudden cardiac death (SCD) is an often undetected electrical malfunction of the heart that strikes teens and young adults, usually during exercise. Many never knew what hit them as most first episodes are fatal.
Mine would have been one for the books as well, if it weren’t for a nurse and two off-duty detectives who just happened to be in the same nightclub that evening. These miracle workers did not hesitate to get on the floor and administer CPR. They gave me CPR for an unheard of 21 minutes because the paramedics who were called had gotten lost! (This was way before smartphones and map apps.) Years later, we joked they could have literally carried me across the street as the hospital was right there.
I spent the next four months in the hospital where I was treated with experimental medication to control the crazy arrhythmia. A year and a half later, an automatic implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) was implanted in my chest, which meant that I could now carry my own “paramedic” 24/7.
Before I was 30 I had died, survived 2 sudden cardiac episodes and had my first of 4 open heart surgeries. How does one integrate that into a “normal” life? You become BOLD! You are fearless and live each moment to the fullest. By facing death at such an early age, I was blessed to truly understand the lesson that there are no guarantees, so live life, don’t hold grudges and share your smile and kindness with others.
With my new ICD safety net there was no stopping me and my heart, now nicknamed “Sparky” because of its screwy electrical wiring. My wonderful best buddy, Brad, still asked me to be his wife even after knowing I faced a very uncertain life span. We married and worked corporate LA for many years before deciding — with an unknown future — that we were going to be crazy and pursue an entirely different lifestyle. We sold the house, packed up the dog and cats and moved north where we became owners of a resort in the middle of the Washington Cascades. That BOLD, daring and risk taking spirt served us well.
Medical care for me now involved a three-hour drive over the Cascades to Seattle. But we felt we needed to get away from it all and start living our life adventure that we had always dreamed of. We were not going to let my disease define us.
Fast forward over the next two decades during which I had two more sudden cardiac death episodes, a gazillion heart tests, blood draws, X-rays and medications as well as a total of eight implantable defibrillators, another cracking of my sternum for open heart surgery #2….and the biggest blessing of all — the miracle birth of our daughter.
By 2013, I had been in what was classified as “end of life” heart failure for about three years. My goal was to stay alive long enough to see our daughter graduate high school in 2015 and send her off to college so I knew she could “fly” on her own.
The power of BOLD positive thinking, my supportive family and friends, my faith, and lots of laughter helped me through those final years of heart failure.
I continued to work with my husband as owners of our successful lodge, despite now daily 12-15 pounds of water gain and drug-induced elimination as my heart failed. I took massive meds to stay alive. My daughter was the one who asked me to please stop saying “no” and go onto the transplant list. She feared there was no way I was going to make it for two more years to see her graduation.
She was right. In May it was determined I was now too high a risk for the University of Washington Medical Center’s heart team to care for anymore. I was devastated. The medical community I had relied on to keep me alive was now unable to help me any further.
However, this was another blessing in disguise. My physician transferred my care to Cedars Sinai Medical Center in LA, the top transplant program in the nation. The doctors agreed with me that it was amazing I had lasted this long. They let me stay at home in Washington until things got worse.
I was still banking on that being another two years. Two months later I was flown to LA and entered Cedars via the emergency entrance. My entire body was filled with fluid and the meds were no longer effective in helping me eliminate them. I was dying.
They moved me to 1A, top of the transplant list. Two days passed before the doctors sat us down and explained that finding a match in such a short time frame was impossible. It appeared I was going to be a difficult candidate to match. But they had an incredible solution. Their answer was to remove my heart and implant a total artificial heart (TAH) into my chest. WHAT?! Transplant was hard enough to digest, but now this? Being alive with no heart in my chest cavity, just a machine?
My brother helped ease my mind and summed it up: Without it I was going to die. So, I signed the consent for my third open-heart surgery. Time to be brave and BOLD.
In July 2013 I said goodbye to “Sparky” and awoke with no heart except a very large, and really loud, machine I named “Sammy”. I had a love-hate relationship with that thumping, cumbersome machine. It blessed me with continued life and allowed me time to gain back some strength and energy, but he was so disruptive to my sanity with his continual thump, thump thump. But in the end this was another medical miracle that came along just as I needed it.
Having the TAH machine was supposed to be a temporary “bridge to transplant” for perhaps a few weeks or maybe a month. But it became my reality for just under six months. My kidneys failed. I was put on dialysis as well, 1,300 miles away from my family. I had learned to be patient, rely on my faith and my tenacity… I was not giving in now! My family from Washington, Oregon and Northern California took shifts coming down to LA. Even more amazing, my childhood, college and career girlfriends, from when I lived in Southern California 20 years before, were there in rotation. I was never alone at the hospital. Everyone pitched in to keep my spirits high.
On December 15, 2013, my young angel donor tragically lost her life, but through the gift of her heart and one of her kidneys, I was given my life back. I am forever grateful to this BOLD 16-year-old young woman and her family that found the strength in their tremendous grief to think of others and to donate her healthy organs to save a stranger.
It is now five years post-transplant and I have never been healthier in my adult life. In writing this all down I realize, yes, I really am BOLD. I am brave, courageous and willing to take risks. I have made it through this journey and still can smile and laugh. If I can do this… you girlfriend can also BE BOLD when faced with any adversity that crosses your path. Each day is a gift to all of us and we should each celebrate the gift of our lives every day!
Image credit: Cynthia Hartwig