Getting a new heart

March 9, 2015

College rallies around married counselors who face crisis

One-year-old Sebastian is a happy little boy. He likes to initiate peek-a-boo with his mom and dad, Melissa and Alex Wells, who both work as counselors at Johnson County Community College.

“He’s awesome,” said Alex, the proud dad. “He’s already getting too big.”

While reveling in the joy of a baby, the couple faces a daunting crisis: Melissa needs a new heart.

‘Running on batteries’

While delivering Sebastian on Jan. 22, 2014, Melissa’s lungs filled with fluid and her heart began to fail. She recovered enough to go home but was in and out of the hospital. When she suffered cardiac shock in April, doctors were forced to implant a ventilator and a balloon in her heart to keep her alive. 

During an interview in Melissa’s counseling office at JCCC, she and her husband joked about the fact that she now literally runs on batteries. She carries a battery-powered device in what looks like a laptop bag. The device is connected to a cord that feeds up behind her neck and back down to an opening in her stomach and up to the ventilator in her heart. 

“This is what keeps me running,” Melissa said, patting the bag sitting on her lap. “I don’t have a heartbeat.”

Resting heart rate of 135

Melissa, who is 32, did not have any signs of heart trouble until she was 24 years old. Then she began to notice that she sometimes felt short of breath. At first, she chalked it up to bad allergies. 

One day, walking from her car to her office at Avila University in Kansas City, she had to stop several times to catch her breath. She called her mother, who talked her into going to the emergency room.

“At first, the doctors thought I was on meth,” Melissa said. “They couldn’t understand how someone my age could have a resting heart rate of 135.” After tests showed that she had dilated cardiomyopathy, a surgeon implanted a pacemaker. That happened in 2007. For the next seven years, she said, she felt fine. 

“Doctors said we were good to have a baby,” said Alex, 33, who had married her after meeting her at Avila. “It’s not like we just jumped into it blind.”

Post-baby crisis

Melissa had a normal pregnancy until its last week. Then her lungs began to fill with fluid. While delivering Sebastian, she coughed so much and so hard that she felt like she coughed him out instead of pushing him out.

For the next few months, Melissa was in and out of St. Luke’s Hospital because the fluid kept coming back. Doctors wanted her nearby to monitor her. 

In April, while Melissa was at home in Olathe, she went into cardiac shock. Her heart was pumping so slowly that all of her organs began to fail.

That was a scary time.

Doctors decided that they needed to implant a balloon and a left ventricular assist device to keep her alive.

Before the surgery, Alex brought Sebastian to see her.

“Melissa was awake enough to interact somewhat,” he said, “but she was pretty drugged up. He just cuddled up to her and slept there with her for three hours – kind of stood guard. It was the sweetest time.”

Melissa has no recollection of it. In fact, she did not wake up and see the photo that her husband had taken of her and Sebastian until three weeks after the surgery.

Rest and preparation

Melissa slowly regained strength. 

She had to relearn how to walk. Her muscles had atrophied because she had been lying so long on a hospital bed. 

“It took me a month before I could go up the stairs again,” she said.

She returned to her job at the college when the fall semester began in August. She holds a 30-hour a week position but for now generally tries to work 15. She parks in a handicap spot because long walks still tire her. Otherwise, she says, she often feels all right.

“People are amazed at how good she looks,” said Alex, who holds a full-time position as a counselor.

To prepare for a heart transplant, Melissa has had her blood washed several times. The washes help get antibodies out of her blood so there is less chance of a rejection. The first time it was done, she had a 97 percent chance of rejecting a heart. The next time it went down to 63 percent. Doctors ideally want to get it down to below 10 percent. At one point, they said she was ready for a transplant but the percentage can change. Because Melissa has O positive blood, she will be eligible only for an O positive heart. 

‘It’s been a fight’

The year has been challenging, the two say.

“I won’t lie,” Alex said. “It’s been a fight.” 

On the plus side, he said, the support they have received from co-workers, friends and family has been amazing. At critical times, people have provided food, mowed their lawn and babysat with little notice. Co-workers now are routinely holding fundraisers to help with their medical bills.

“It’s really remarkable what everyone has done for us,” he said. “Just the support, the outpouring of aid and help from this group is what really has gotten us through it.”

The heart transplant alone is expected to cost $1 million. The Wells believe their insurance will pay about 80 percent. Then there are all the other hospital stays and procedures Melissa has had and the follow-up care that she will require.

“I can’t even get my head around it,” Melissa said. “We do what we can on it. That’s all we can do.”