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Local teenager awaits life-saving heart transplant on Front Range

Like the Tinman, Katie Dickson wants a heart.

Like Dorothy, she wants to go home.

Dickson, the 17-year-old twin daughter of Rich and Sally Dickson, of New Castle, was born with a defective heart.



“Her heart has given her all it can, and it’s failing,” said her father.

Without a transplant, she’ll die.



“I don’t really want to think about that,” he said.

Katie’s name has been placed on a regional recipient’s list at Children’s Hospital in Denver. Katie and her mother, Sally, along with Katie’s twin sister Christina, are currently staying in Colorado Springs waiting for the call that a compatible heart has been located.

“A stipulation of the heart transplant is that she has to be within one hour of the hospital,” said Rich Dickson. Katie keeps a special pager with her. When beeped, she has only minutes to get to Children’s.

Paradoxically, someone must die in a manner that does not damage the heart, said Dickson. It’s a fact the family doesn’t like to consider.

But if a compatible heart can be found, “The odds are very, very good” for Katie’s survival, said Dickson.

Any potential heart must match Katie’s blood type and body size, said Dickson. Even if she does undergo a transplant, the odds that body and heart will reject one another are at about 30 percent. To the Dicksons, that means that there is a 70 percent chance the heart will take.

“You’ve got about 90 days where everything has to fall into place,” said Dickson. Otherwise, another heart must quickly be found. “That’s when it gets very, very scary,” he said.

Still, the family remains optimistic. If the heart is accepted, recipients have about a 90 percent success rate, he said. “Twenty years ago it would have been half that,” he added.

Katie’s struggles with her heart began at birth.

She was born Feb. 21, 1985, at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. She weighed a scant 4 pounds, 8 ounces, and remained in the hospital for almost a week. After five and a half months she was sent on Flight for Life to the University of Colorado’s Health Sciences Center in Denver.

There, she underwent open-heart surgery to repair the wall separating the left and right sides of her heart. Doctors diagnosed her with congenital heart disease. Three days later, she was back in surgery to install an artificial valve. Only seven days later she had a third surgery to install a pacemaker.

Her twin, Christina, remained healthy.

Since infancy, said Dickson, Katie has been in and out of the Health Sciences Center and later, Children’s Hospital. She endured additional open-heart surgeries and numerous surgeries to repair her pacemaker.

“Most surgeries we had no time to prepare for,” said Rich. “She’d go in for a checkup, and we’d be on our way to Denver.”

The decision to go on the recipient waiting list was Katie’s, said Dickson. Although she isn’t yet 18, she’s mature enough to make her own life decisions.

But the decision was a hard one for her, he said. He remembers last Christmas day, when she called him from her grandmother’s house to say she’d made up her mind.

Dave Miller, director of The Garden School, a private school in New Castle where Katie has been enrolled for the past three years, said Katie sent her classmates a letter as part of a school assignment.

She called the letter, “Living With a Problem.”

In it, she wrote that when friends would ask her if she was going to have a heart transplant, she would say no. But something her grandmother said Christmas day made her change her mind.

Her grandmother told her that this might be the last time they spend Christmas together, “and I couldn’t have that,” she wrote.

Until she receives a heart, Katie must take medications that are hard on her liver and kidneys. She’s already gone into congestive heart failure. In spite of it all, she remains upbeat, her dad said.

“She is just amazing,” said Dickson.

The older Katie gets, the better she understands the severity of her condition. She worries, he said, but not as much as one might expect.

Katie’s health has also been a heartbreak for her parents. Long-time area residents, Rich and Sally graduated from Roaring Fork High School and were married in 1978. They moved to New Castle 20 years ago to raise their family, including an older son, Benjamin, 22, who lives in New Castle.

Katie attended public schools until she was about 14, said Dickson. Because of frequent absences she had trouble keeping up.

Katie’s medical expenses are covered by Medicaid, said Dickson, but other strains, including travel expenses and his wife’s time lost from work, are taking their toll on the family.

Dickson remains in New Castle so he can continue his job as a drywaller. The girls live in a one-bedroom apartment with their grandmother, an arrangement they hope is only temporary. Eventually, said Rich, the entire family hopes to move to Denver where they can be together.

Community response has been good, said Rich. One anonymous donor gave Katie a scholarship to The Garden School, and the school lets her keep her studies up through correspondence.

The people of the community of Apple Tree in New Castle where the Dicksons live have also come together to help, he said. In Apple Tree, he said, “Everybody knows everyone and everybody watches out for everybody’s children.”

Donation jars to help cover the Dickson family’s expenses have been placed in various locations from New Castle to Glenwood Springs. They can be recognized by the photo of Katie smiling and wearing overalls and a striped T-shirt.

Donations can also be made at any Alpine Bank, in the name Katie Dickson, account No. 113091515.

Rich Dickson said they plan to use some of the money to do something fun together as a family while Katie waits for her beeper to go off.

Prayers and good wishes are also greatly appreciated, said Rich.

“With the old heart, it was constant maintenance and constant surgery,” he said, resting his chin in the palms of his hands. “With a successful transplant, it’ll be a done deal. She’ll feel better than she’s ever felt in her life.”


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