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In Their Own Words: What It's Like to Be on the Heart Transplant Team

In honor of Heart Month, three Smidt Heart Institute social workers, a nurse transplant coordinator and a cardiologist explained why they choose to specialize in heart transplantation. Here, in their own words, are their stories: 

Transplant Coordinator Angela Velleca, RN, BSN: "As a young student nurse, I had just left a rather difficult rotation in a burn unit to begin rotation on a cardiac surgery floor. I was honestly rethinking my decision to enter nursing because the burn unit experience had been so mentally challenging. 

"Once I was in the cardiac surgery unit, I was assigned to a patient in his mid-50s. He was recovering from heart surgery and one of my tasks was to be sure he exercised and walked for the day. He was a tall man, very jovial and full of energy. He was taking great strides and I needed to pick up my pace to keep up with him. I was already impressed with his recovery when later that afternoon, the attending surgeon made the comment that this patient was practically dead when he arrived at the hospital. Two days prior, my patient had been in cardiac arrest and was taken emergently to surgery. Seeing the remarkable recovery after this life-saving surgery, I knew I wanted to be part of cardiology. I was so excited to be accepted to the new graduate cardiothoracic critical care program. I took care of my first heart transplant recipient and was even more overwhelmed and awed by the experience. So many advances in transplantation and mechanical circulatory support devices were happening and it was an innovative time.

"I have met so many wonderful patients and learned something from all of them. Not many areas in medicine allow you to follow a patient so closely for many years. You get to know them well and to know their families. I had the chance to take care of a very special lady for 15 years. At the time of her transplant, her two daughters were very young. She waited for many weeks in the Intensive Care Unit for a heart transplant. I saw her every day. We were all overjoyed when her transplant day finally came. She did well and after her transplant, she gave so much back to other transplant patients who were waiting for their new hearts and our friendship grew over the years. Her daughters grew, too, and one even became a nurse. My patient was always thankful the special gift of life that she received.

"After 15 years, my patient developed complications and eventually passed away. I was sad because we had lost a kind and lovely patient and I had lost a friend. I realized then that being a transplant coordinator is a unique experience. We are with the patient in their most vulnerable moments for the most important conversations. I’m humbled everyday by the gracious way our patients and donor families face life’s most difficult challenges. It’s a privilege to witness this miracle."

Heart Transplant Social Workers Alisa Fishman, LCSW, Linda Olanisa, LCSW, and Megan Olman, LCSW: "Being a heart transplant social worker has been one of the most rewarding experiences of each of our careers. Each day we are privileged to walk alongside the most inspiring patients and families, who come to us during what can be the scariest and most uncertain time of their lives. While we are there to provide supportive interventions, we often find that our patients and families end up teaching us what true strength and resilience looks like. Their fight inspires us to appreciate each day in a whole new way. Heart transplantation is amazing. It literally gives people a second chance at life. Being able to see a patient walk their child down the aisle, graduate from college, or witness the birth of a grandchild -- knowing the journey that they had to overcome to get there -- is truly humbling and heartwarming."

Associate Professor of Medicine and Cardiologist Michelle Kittleson, MD, PhD: "I don’t think you can witness a heart transplant and not believe in miracles. How amazing that one can remove a beating heart, maintain it in a state of suspended animation, implant it into another human being, and bring it back to life. 

"Yet it wasn’t a miracle that inspired me to become a transplant cardiologist. It was a tragedy. And it has stuck with me. Fifteen years later, I think of that patient every day.

"Back when I was a cardiology fellow, I cared for a retired engineer. He was disciplined and organized, dragging his IV pole through the hospital halls for his daily walks and keeping track of his medications with a color-coded spreadsheet. He would have been a perfect heart transplant patient. But while on the heart transplant waiting list, my patient had a massive stroke. He was declared brain dead and his family honored his wishes to be an organ donor. My patient’s liver saved the life of another patient in the same intensive care unit.

"It is an honor and a privilege to witness firsthand the courage of my patients and their families as well as the generosity of their organ donors. With every transplant, I am newly impressed by the power of the human spirit to endure unspeakable hardship and grief with grace. With every triumph, and with every tragedy, I remain in awe of the mysterious miracle of transplantation."

Read More on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Transplant Recipient is Part of the Donor's Family Now