Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018
Cherron Gilmore called her husband as she sat anxiously in a North Carolina hospital room in September 2018. They both were listening intently when — at age 37 — Gilmore learned she was going to die.
“You’re too risky and we don’t think you’ll make it through surgery,” Gilmore said the doctor told her. “Even if we put it in, we don’t think you’ll make it through transplant.”
It was the fourth time she was turned town for a heart transplant from three hospitals in her home state.
Without knowing how much time she had left, Gilmore began preparing for her death by writing goodbye letters to her three children, ages 17, 13 and 8. She drafted notes filled with the musings she’d like her young daughter to know when she went to prom and on her future wedding day.
It was not until Gilmore was medevacked to VCU Health’s Pauley Heart Center — defeated and on her deathbed — that she realized her story did not yet have an ending.
Cherron Gilmore and her VCU Health Pauley Heart Center surgeons speak about her transplant journey. (Video by Taylor MacKillop, University Marketing)
A fatal diagnosis during pregnancy
Gilmore was 29 and pregnant with her third child in 2010 when she was diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy, often referred to as postpartum cardiomyopathy — a rare condition characterized by weakness of the heart muscle during pregnancy. However, her local doctors didn’t know right away that there was an issue.
“I started having some symptoms that didn’t feel like pregnancy symptoms,” Gilmore said.
The first doctor told her the extreme shortness of breath was normal, and everything was fine. Knowing what it was like to have carried two children prior, Gilmore got a second opinion.
The second doctor came bearing the bad news.
“When you’re pregnant, you don’t even know [peripartum cardiomyopathy] is a possibility,” Gilmore said. “I’d never heard of it.”
Gilmore gave birth to a daughter, Khori, three months early. The baby weighed only 3 pounds. Mother and daughter spent a combined month and a half in intensive care following the delivery. To compound the matter, Gilmore’s heart wasn’t recovering.
“You’re supposed to be able to recover once the baby is removed, and I guess I was just one of those women who didn’t.”
You’re supposed to be able to recover once the baby is removed, and I guess I was just one of those women who didn’t.
Six months after the delivery, Gilmore’s doctors gave her an implantable cardioverter defibrillator because she was in danger of experiencing sudden death.
“It just went all the way downhill from there,” she said.
In 2011, her heart function was declining. She visited three hospitals before a doctor told her she needed a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) implanted in her heart to help it pump blood. Without the procedure, she had only one month left to live.
“When I got my LVAD, it was so unexpected,” Gilmore said. “We weren’t prepared at all. It was like, if we don't put this thing in right now you're not going to wake up tomorrow type of thing.”
Gilmore underwent the LVAD procedure and went on to live a normal life for nearly eight years. She got her children ready for school each morning, participated in local heart walks, and was selected as a 2018 Forsyth County Go Red Woman for having made lifestyle changes to be heart healthy.
She was doing well, until she wasn’t.
Four times denied
In August 2018, Gilmore’s health declined dramatically.
“She did seem like she recovered well enough, so a year [after the LVAD procedure] they took her device out,” said Daniel Tang, M.D., cardiac surgeon at the Pauley Heart Center, as he reflected on Gilmore’s case. “She then had recurrent heart failure. And not only did it recur, but it was just as bad as before.”
No medications or lifestyle changes were making a difference as her health declined. “I had been denied four times for a transplant,” Gilmore said.
One hospital told her she was too much of a risk for a heart transplant. Another said she wasn’t sick enough. “Everybody has their own reasons for why. … It was so many different factors. I had built up a wall because I felt like everywhere I went, they didn’t know how to treat me,” Gilmore said.
Feeling tired, defeated and on the brink of death, Gilmore had just about given up when her local hospital referred her to VCU Health’s Pauley Heart Center.
“When I came [to VCU Health] it was at night and I was flown here by a helicopter. I was just told by my local hospital that they were ready to pull the plug on me,” she said.
“From the moment I got off that helicopter [I felt like the VCU Health team] was like, ‘OK, let's do this. Let's get her work done,’” Gilmore said. “I was just confused, because I came from someplace where everything was dark and gloomy to a place that said, ‘Well, we can do that.’”
From the moment I got off that helicopter [I felt like the VCU Health team] was like, ‘OK, let's do this. Let's get her work done.’ … I came from someplace where everything was dark and gloomy to a place that said, ‘Well, we can do that.’
‘When I woke up, I was painless’
“When she was transferred [to VCU Health] she was pretty sick,” Tang said.
Gilmore was admitted to the Pauley Heart Center on Sept. 6 and within four days was in the operating room, where Tang and a skilled team removed her heart and replaced it with a total artificial heart.
Total artificial heart implants are rare, but are becoming an option for those on the waitlist for a heart transplant. “In the future, many patients unable to receive a heart transplant may instead get an artificial heart that is fully internalized and silent,” said Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery at VCU Medical Center. “The next five to 10 years, I expect we will see some pretty remarkable advances in this technology.”
According to SynCardia, the manufacturer of the total artificial heart, VCU Health Pauley Heart Center ranks No. 4 worldwide in total artificial heart implants, having implanted 114 to date. Kasirajan said VCU is one of the most active sites in the country for total artificial hearts.
With her total artificial heart, Gilmore was able to go home to be with her family. Three weeks later, she got the call she had been praying for: She was getting a heart.
“It was almost like my body needed a couple weeks to heal up and then boom. It happened so fast,” she said. “When I got [the call] I was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’”
The next day, at sunrise on an October morning, she was back in the operating room as Kasirajan and the heart transplant team performed the surgery Gilmore never thought would happen. The surgery also marked a milestone for the Pauley Heart Center — 600 heart transplants performed in the transplant program’s history.
“It was crazy because they put the heart in and it was like a complete change. I haven't felt like this in a long time,” Gilmore said.
“When I woke up, I was painless.”
Days after her surgery, Gilmore sat in a Pauley Heart Center hospital room with her husband and reflected on what she had gone through and the life ahead of her.
“I never had to look much toward the future. Now I have a future to look forward to,” Gilmore said.
She said she lives every day to the fullest, grateful for the time she has, and without any limits or regrets. When she finally returned home 13 days after surgery, her children came rushing out of the house — screaming — ready to hug the mother they’d been missing.
“They also definitely had a lot of questions about the transplant and everything,” Gilmore said. “My daughter even asked if I’d start acting like the person whose heart I received. I explained to her that souls go to heaven — organs don’t. So even though I have that person’s heart I don’t, however, have their soul. But we pray every day that their soul is resting peacefully. And we thank their family for passing the blessing on and allowing me to continue to be here to raise you.
“It just really feels like all is OK in the world now.”