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Heart Transplant Recipient’s Life Saved Through Girl’s Generous Gift

Starting with a life-threatening diagnosis, to the often long wait for a donor match, to the extensive recovery process, the journey for transplant recipients can be incredibly challenging, and it takes a lot of heart. That’s why 60-year-old Birmingham native Sherron Simmons says she’s thankful that she has had two of them thanks to her heart transplant at UAB Medicine’s Comprehensive Transplant Institute (CTI).

Simmons was diagnosed with heart failure in 2010 at the age of 53. After exercising at the gym one day, she started to experience some strange symptoms while driving home.

“I began to have this burning in my chest that gradually got worse. When I got home, I struggled to even get out of my car. Thankfully, my husband immediately recognized that there was something wrong,” Simmons says. “While being transported to the hospital, I suffered a heart attack.”

After spending a week in intensive care, Simmons was transferred to the step-down unit. The next morning, the unexpected happened.

“I experienced another heart attack. This one caused my heart to stop. I died that morning, but thankfully, I was revived back to life,” Simmons says.

Coming to UAB Medicine

Simmons was told she needed bypass surgery after her double heart attack, and that’s when she came to UAB Medicine to be cared for by Constantine Athanasuleas, MD. She says it was a huge shock to her and her family, who had never considered that Simmons could be at risk for heart disease.

“I was healthy, even below average weight sometimes. I was active and had never smoked. Yet, what I didn’t realize was that I had a genetic predisposition for heart disease because of my family history,” Simmons says. “I hope everyone will be more aware of their heart health, because acting fast when I had my first heart attack and receiving the excellent care that I did while in the hospital for my second one saved my life.”

Simmons says after her bypass, she was given the choice to go back to her previous medical center for care, but she stayed with UAB Medicine. Four months after her bypass, Simmons learned some even more troubling news that made her thankful she had stayed.

“During a routine test, my cardiologist discovered that the pressure in my heart was too high. I was immediately admitted to the hospital, and that’s when Dr. Salpy Pamboukian told me I was in heart failure and would need a heart transplant,” Simmons says.

Simmons says she remembers just how frightening that news was to hear.

“My emotions were all over the place. It was a battle within. My main reaction was total fear of the unknown. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around needing a heart transplant after everything I had already been through,” Simmons says.

She says it was the personalized, expert care she received that helped her overcome that fear.

“I remember my husband asked Dr. Pamboukian if she was the one who needed the transplant, what would she do? Dr. Pamboukian responded confidently that UAB Medicine would be her first and only choice. Although it didn’t remove my fear entirely, her kindness and encouragement helped us accept the fact that I needed a transplant and move forward,” Simmons says.

Compassionate Care

Simmons received her new heart in May 2011 under the care of Jose Tallaj, MD, with James Kirklin, MD, performing the transplant surgery. She spent a month in the transplant unit after the operation. She says she was so impressed with everyone who helped her during recovery.

“I couldn’t have asked for better care from the entire staff. Everyone was just so kind, and I felt like they genuinely cared about me. It wasn’t just a job for them,” Simmons recalls.

Simmons says the nurses and patient care technicians were particularly compassionate.

“For several weeks, I had a balloon pump that prevented me from getting out of bed,” Simmons says. “One particular night, I was very restless and couldn’t find a comfortable position. My nurse noticed and without being asked found several pillows and placed them all around me. Pillows seem like a small thing, but in that moment, it meant the world.”

“Another special memory I have from my recovery was when the balloon pump was removed, and I was finally cleared to take a shower. I was down to 87 pounds and so weak from lying in bed for so long. My patient care technician took me to the shower, and because I was too weak to do it, she washed my hair and even put lotion on afterwards. It helped me feel human again for the first time in weeks, and she spent so much time with me. Those were the moments I knew what exceptional care meant for UAB Medicine.”

Changed Outlook

Simmons’s heart failure is now in remission. She’s had no rejection episodes, although she has to be very careful about germs due to a weakened immune system. She says she’s using her second chance at life to give back to her community and to cherish her family.

“My life after transplant has been very active. I’ve volunteered for the American Heart Association, which was a great resource for me during the transplant process. I’ve shared my story many times at events and fundraisers. I even wrote a book about my journey, and the proceeds benefit the James K. Kirklin Patient Assistant Endowment Fund,” Simmons says. “My outlook has changed. I didn’t think it was possible, but I love my family even more after my transplant. Each day that I get to see a new day, I count it as a blessing!”

Simmons says she hopes everyone will consider becoming an organ donor.

“My donor was her mother’s only child. I’m so grateful she decided to be an organ donor at such a young age; it shows her kindness and generosity,” Simmons says. “If you’re not an organ donor, I encourage you to consider it. It’s the gift of life. My life was saved because of this one girl’s generous gift.”