Holiday Gift: Patient Gets New Heart and Kidney
Dec 06, 2021 Agata Smieciuszewski
On December 25, 2020, advertising executive Shana Pereira finally got the Christmas gift she had been waiting for: a new heart and kidney.
Despite a lot of bad news leading up to that day, Shana never let her attitude falter.
"I was going to bring some positive energy at the time of Christmas when everyone had to work," she recalls. "COVID-19 was rampant, and everyone was exhausted."
Shana, like many transplant patients, had developed close relationships with the medical staff on her care team. For months, they'd been chatting about how her story was the perfect plot for a feel-good holiday movie. There were many conversations around casting and who would be involved, but everyone was surprised it was actually coming true.
“She has faced so much along her journey but she approaches each challenge head on with an amazing attitude and a perseverance that is inspiring."
Shana first found out her kidneys failed and would need a transplant when visiting her family in Australia on Christmas Eve 2015. After returning to L.A., she began her search for the right place to help her.
"I met Dr. Irene Kim, and she walked in as I was crying," Shana recalls. "I told her I was terrified, and she told me she wasn't worried and explained exactly what they would do. She said it with love and hugged me and told me I was going to be great—we got this."
Dr. Kim walked out, leaving Shana speechless and sure that she had found the right place.
Searching for an organ can be difficult for many. A friend of Shana's decided to include her story in his upcoming public speaking gigs and podcasts, hoping to help her find a kidney donor. In 2018, she got a phone call from a woman she didn't know.
"She said, 'I saw your picture on the internet, and I just knew God was bringing me together with you and I knew that I was meant to give you my kidney,'" she remembers.
By that point, she was working normal hours and then doing 11 hours of dialysis every day at home.
A tale of the heart
Shana was also regularly seeing cardiologist Dr. Dael Geft to ensure her heart was in good condition for her kidney transplant. In 2019, he called her to let her know her stress test results were abnormal and she needed stents put in. She wasn't too concerned about it because she didn't feel sick.
Her kidney donor, a 29-year-old public school teacher from Virginia, arrived in summer 2019 to start some of the necessary lab work and tests to donate her organ. By the time she gets her approvals, COVID-19 hit and kidney transplants nationwide were put on hold. Finally, in August 2020, her donor was approved.
They scheduled one last round of tests for Shana to do pre-transplant: a stress test and a kidney ultrasound. Her kidney ultrasound showed a cyst, and her doctor told her there was a 70% chance it could be cancer.
Three days later, she got more bad news. Dr. Geft called her and asked her to drive from San Diego to come see him immediately. She learned her heart was very weak and operating at 15%. By Labor Day weekend, she was admitted into the hospital and learned that two arteries were completely blocked and the third was nearly blocked, as well. Dr. Geft told her if they couldn't get the heart to function above 50%, she would need a heart transplant.
Shana was understandably distraught by the news, but Dr. Geft had more wisdom to share. "He said, 'When I first met you, I knew you were meant to do big things in the world. We're going to have a game plan that keeps you alive for you to do everything you want to do for years to come. Let's just focus on the next thing we've got to do. I have a game plan—you focus on living. That's our agreement, that's our partnership,'" Shana says.
According to Dr. Dael Geft, Shana personifies bravery, hope and positive thinking. “She has faced so much along her journey but she approaches each challenge head on with an amazing attitude and a perseverance that is inspiring,” Dr. Geft says. “Above all, she focuses on how she can use her experiences to create awareness, uplift others and make the world a better place.”
The final stretch
In November, Shana was sharing the news with her best friend on the phone who pointed out her story was similar to the plots of holiday movies.
"She said 'Oh my god, that's a Hallmark movie. At Thanksgiving, you're going to get the surgery to get a kidney removed, and then at Christmas, you're going to get your heart and your kidney. It's going to be an amazing Christmas miracle!'" Shana remembers.
Shana's kidney was removed the weekend before Thanksgiving and was confirmed to be cancer-free. She decided to focus on getting her heart clearances done as quickly as possible so she could be on the list by Christmas. She had an appointment December 22 to get her heart pressure checked, and she was admitted to the hospital that day. By December 24, she was on the transplant list due to declining numbers.
Shana put out a message on her Facebook page: "Hey everyone, we're praying for a Christmas miracle. I need a heart and kidney transplant."
Many people jumped in with prayers and spread the word to their network. A friend of a friend connected Shana with a Chaplain at Cedars-Sinai, and she came to visit and pray on Christmas Eve.
"She said, 'I heard you're praying for a miracle. I'm Peggy. I would love to pray with you if you're open to it," Shana recalls.
The next day, on Christmas Day at 10:47 p.m., Shana got a call that there was a heart and kidney coming for her.
The celebration and joy of the good news got cut short when Shana started feeling sick and her heart stopped. A nurse performed CPR, and Dr. Fardad Esmailian directed for her to be taken to the operating room immediately.
She woke up from surgery with her new heart and kidney and found out the rest of the story: Her chest was opened, and her heart was kept manually beating as they awaited the heart that was coming in a helicopter. Then, 12 hours later, the kidney arrived and was transplanted by Dr. Todd Brennan.
After her surgery, Dr. Esmailian checked on her every day.
"I didn't know what to say. I couldn't say anything," Shana says.
Dr. Esmailian would review her vital signs and nod to her before leaving.
On the seventh day, she managed to muster up words.
"I said, 'I don't know what you say to the man who saved your life except that I will never forget you.' And he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, 'In 30 years of heart surgery, I have never seen anything like it. I'm the one who will never forget you.'"