Vail-area woman Jennifer Ortiz recovering from her second heart transplant
Vail Valley native Jennifer Ortiz still needs to raise some money to pay for all this. To help, go to www.gofundme.com/jennifers-second-heart-transplant.
LOS ANGELES — Of all the angels in the City of Angels, Jennifer Ortiz is among the most angelic.
Ortiz is in Los Angeles, relaxing and recovering from her second heart transplant. She’s a Vail Valley native and wants to be back in the high country by June so she can volunteer again this summer at Roundup River Ranch, a camp for kids with life threatening medical conditions.
She’s at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center under the watchful eye of some of the world’s best surgeons. The three doctors on her cardiology team say her new heart is “perfect.”
Jennifer graduated from Battle Mountain High School in 2013 and started college at the University of Colorado. She’s changing her college and career path from biomechanical engineering to nursing.
Two hearts are better than one
Jennifer was just 12 years old when a viral infection set about destroying the heart she was born with.
She had been sick for two weeks with a cough, so her parents, Danny and Sussie Lopez, took her to the emergency room. A chest X-ray showed her heart was enlarged, so doctors sent her down to Children’s Hospital in Denver.
The choices were not complicated: Get a heart transplant or die. She and her parents decided that, given those options, she’d like to live — thank you very much. She was on the transplant list only four days before she got her new heart.
She’s 21 now, but in those nine years that heart was never at home. Her body has tried repeatedly to reject it. She would get sick and land in the hospital. Doctors gave her all the medications they could, and that helped.
At some point, though, her transplanted heart would have to go.
That point came last November when her kidneys shut down because her heart wasn’t working properly.
“It’s called an acute kidney injury,” Jennifer explained.
Kidneys need an enormous amount of oxygenated blood from the heart, and hers wasn’t providing it.
The medications they were giving her for her heart made her kidney problems worse, Danny said. She ended up on kidney dialysis.
She needed a combination heart/kidney transplant, something her Colorado doctors don’t have much experience with, Danny said.
UCLA has a team of doctors who do those operations all the time. Her Colorado doctors shipped her to Los Angeles on a private plane outfitted with all kinds of life saving and life monitoring gear.
“There are so many hands on this, and they’re so gifted and dedicated,” Danny said.
She hit Los Angeles and her kidneys woke up. She went on Southern California’s huge heart transplant list and bounced straight to the top.
“First, 20 million people live there,” Danny said. “There also seems to be more awareness about being a donor.”
The heart matters
They needed a young person’s heart. The cause of death also matters.
Despite what we may think, it can’t be an auto accident victim because hearts are often bruised badly. There can’t be any drugs in the donor’s system.
“It can take weeks, months, years to find a match,” Danny said.
Jennifer’s newest heart came from a 27-year-old man who was on life support in a Los Angeles hospital when he died.
“He not only saved Jennifer’s life, he saved so many others,” Danny said.
The donation process has to be fast.
Because the young man was in Los Angeles and so were many recipients, surgeons arrived by car, cab, plane and helicopter to line up and take their specific organs. They had lives to save and this young man was making it possible.
Jennifer and her family don’t know where her first transplanted heart came from. She doesn’t know how old the donor was or how they died. She knows it was flown in late one night and it saved her 12-year-olds life.
She was born with a tiny birth defect that prevented the left side of the heart from pumping enough blood. The body, in all its adaptive resilience, made the right side of her heart grow twice as strong, enough to pump blood for both sides.
When Jennifer had her first heart transplant at 12 years old, the doctors brought out her heart, the one she was born with, the one that was failing her. The family looked at the heart, Danny held it, shedding a tear or two as he remembered holding his infant daughter Jennifer when she was born.
Making moments count
Every time Jennifer gets sick, every time they take her to the doctor or hospital they think, “This might be it.”
“That thought has never left my mind. Whether it’s something as simple as playing Monopoly or watching Netflix, we try to make sure every moment counts,” Danny said.
Going to the bathroom and eating properly is a sign of life, that everything is finally working as it should, Danny said.
Sussie accompanied Jennifer to Los Angeles. Danny’s there now. They’ll stick around Los Angeles for at least three months.
Jennifer went outside Wednesday for the first time in two weeks. The SoCal sunshine never felt so warm.
She landed in the CU Health Center in November. She has been in LA since Christmas. She missed New Years Eve, Thanksgiving and Christmas. But she’s alive and improving.
That, she says, is the best gift of all.
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