On the same day Savannah Nissel learned a donor heart was available for the transplant she badly needed, she also learned she tested positive for COVID-19.
While she didn’t have symptoms of the virus, the positive test meant the surgery to cure her congenital heart problem was put on hold.
“Every day I was suffering … every day was more and more chest pain,” Nissel, 22, said at Thursday’s AdventHealth Morning Briefing. “To think the relief was right there at the door and I just couldn’t open it was hard.”
That relief finally arrived about six weeks later when another heart became available and Nissel, who was diagnosed with a heart problem at age 3, no longer had the coronavirus.
Her heart transplant surgery took place on Sept. 29 – a date Nissel said seemed like fate because it coincided with the World Heart Federation’s World Heart Day. And it was almost exactly two years after her doctor first told her she likely had less than five years left with her original heart.
Today Nissel said she can do many things she struggled to do before, including chasing after her dog and walking for miles without getting tired.
“My life has gone back to better than before,” she said.
Dr. Stacy Mandras, a heart-transplant cardiologist who was part of Nissel’s care team, said seeing patients thrive after surgery is the “most rewarding” part of her job.
“You usher people through the darkest time of their life and then you get to see them thrive afterwards,” she said. “That’s a blessing.”
AdventHealth’s Transplant Institute was recently recognized as the fifth-argest heart transplant center in the nation. While the number of donor hearts available was affected by the pandemic, AdventHealth’s program continued to grow last year.
She urged patients who are noticing symptoms not to delay their care because of the pandemic.
While the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients across AdventHealth’s Central Florida Division continued to trend down again this week, Mandras said people cannot stop taking precautions – especially for patients like Nissel.
“It could very easily spike again if we let our guard down,” Mandras said.
She explained that patients like Nissel are immunosuppressed after surgery, and wearing masks, social distancing and handwashing are important to protect them. Mandras also recommended people take the vaccine as soon as it becomes available to them.
Nissel noted that most people she meets would never guess she’s a heart-transplant patient – a good reason people should continue to be diligent about safeguarding themselves and others.
“If you stood next to me in line at the grocery store, you’d never assume I’m immunosuppressed,” she said.
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