Many young adults create TikTok videos, but Jessica Hernandez may be the only 20-year-old who has used the social media platform to document her heart-lung transplant journey.
Jessica, whose TikTok handle is im_jess_kidding_, posted her first videos from the UAB Comprehensive Transplant Institute (CTI) in October 2021. That’s when she revealed to her 14,000 followers that she had genetic pulmonary hypertension – high blood pressure in the arteries of her lungs – and was on the waitlist for a heart-lung transplant.
That was a significant milestone in an ordeal that had begun nine months earlier. “I worked packaging pet treats for a dog food company, and one day I fainted and threw up,” she says. “I brushed it off because I’d never had any health issues.”
But over the next two months, new symptoms cropped up. Jessica developed a persistent cough, swollen legs, and abdominal pain. She vomited at least three times a day. One local doctor thought she might have diabetes, while another suggested that Jessica’s gallbladder was the culprit. In July 2021, she was on the operating table for gallbladder removal when her blood pressure bottomed out. The gallbladder diagnosis was shelved. After undergoing an echocardiogram and learning that the right side of her heart was enlarged, Jessica was referred to UAB for an MRI scan.
But before she could receive the MRI, Jessica had a late-night scare that sent her to the emergency room. “My heart was going crazy pumping so fast,” she says. An EKG revealed an atrial flutter, a condition where the heart’s upper chambers beat too rapidly and cause an abnormal heart rhythm. “I couldn’t breathe and completely blacked out,” Jessica recalls.
Struggles, Fears, and Longing
Fortunately, Jessica was able to transfer to UAB where cardiovascular experts have one of the largest and oldest pulmonary hypertension programs in the Southeast. Once Jessica arrived at UAB, the medical team inserted a heart catheter through her neck. “They left the tubing in my neck to measure my pressure over three days,” she says. “I had to stay in bed the entire time in the same position.”
Her doctors prescribed an increasing dose of treprostinil, hoping that the intravenous drug would treat Jessica’s pulmonary hypertension so that she could avoid a transplant. Unfortunately, that wasn’t in the cards. José Tallaj, MD, CTI medical director for heart transplantation, asserts, “When the best course of action is a combined heart-lung transplantation, our team of expert physicians is able to provide the highest level of care for our patients.”
Throughout her initial two-month CTI stay, Jessica’s TikTok videos recounted her struggles, fears, and longing for her parents and three younger siblings: Silvia, Guadalupe, and Jesus. But those videos also celebrated her bond with her older sister, 24-year-old Juana, who could be seen at Jessica’s side dancing in her hospital room, across the table assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and encouraging Jessica from the other side of the room.
When her condition stabilized, Jessica and Juana returned home for Thanksgiving. That stretched into Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day as Jessica continued the long wait for donor organs to become available.
Getting the Call
When the call finally came on Feb. 21, 2022, Jessica and Juana packed for the two-hour drive to UAB. “They told me one person was ahead of me and two were behind me in line for the organs,” Jessica says. “Deep down, though, I knew it was going to be me.”
After a series of tests and a few hours of restless sleep, Jessica says that her surgeon and the CTI Surgical Director for Thoracic Transplant Charles Hoopes, MD, told her that she would be the recipient. “I was the best match because I’m five feet tall, and the donor was a 14-year-old boy,” she says.
“Jessica had bad end-stage pulmonary hypertension,” Dr. Hoopes says. “Her body couldn’t get blood from the right side of her heart to the left side, causing cardiogenic shock.” This can result in damage to the kidneys, liver, and other organs.
The transplant went smoothly, and Jessica’s TikTok videos chronicle her initial time in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit and her joy in being reunited with the nursing team in the Heart and Lung Transplant Intensive Care Unit (HTICU). “I spent two months with them in the fall, and I call them my second family,” she says. “The HTICU is my second home.”
While Jessica was in the HTICU, Juana was busy securing a nearby apartment, since transplant patients are required to live near UAB for 100 days following their discharge. “We see the lung team every Monday and the heart team every Thursday,” Jessica says. “I have EKGs, echocardiograms, chest X-rays, labs, and biopsies to make sure there’s no rejection.”
Throughout it all, Jessica has been mindful of her donor’s sacrifice. “Someone lost a loved one so I could be with mine,” she says. For that reason, Jessica’s siblings have told her that they are determined to be organ donors when they get their drivers’ licenses. “They saw how organ donation helped me, and I educated them about how it could help others,” she says.
Dr. Hoopes underscores the need for donors in the southeast. “We have many people who die and meet the criteria for organ donation but do not become donors,” he says. “Organ donation is a way to take a tragic situation and have something good come out of it.”