L to R: Mother Tena, Breana, sister Bailey, father David Bladel
Breana Bladel was 2 days old when the doctor told her parents, Tena and David, to “take her home and let her pass away.” She was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a congenital heart defect in which the left side of the heart is underdeveloped and unable to pump normally. If not treated within days of birth, it can be fatal because blood is not being properly oxygenated and delivered to the rest of the body.
But Breana was the couple’s first child, and they were not willing to give up that quickly. They called in a priest to baptize her and give her last rights. Within eight hours, however, a pediatric heart surgeon was brought in and told the Bladels their newborn would be fine.
Tena, 24, had no complications during her pregnancy in 1996. “Bre’s heartbeat was normal. Her heart size was normal. All the tests came back normal,” Tena recalled. Then two days after she was born, Bre had a heart attack. That’s when the HLHS was found.
HLHS is treated through a series of three surgeries or a heart transplant. The first surgery, called the Norwood procedure, involves the reconstruction of the pulmonary artery to allow for adequate blood flow to the body. It must be performed within a few days of birth. Breana had her first open heart surgery when she was 6 days old. It would not be her last.
At six months, Breana had the second surgery, called the bi-directional Glenn shunt procedure. This allows blood returning from the upper body to flow directly to the lungs. That, in turn, reduces the workload of the right ventricle which has to do nearly all of the pumping in HLHS. Even after this successful surgery, only half of the blood is being oxygenated.
Unfortunately, there were complications after the Fontan procedure. “She was in the hospital for two months, but after that she was fine until she was about 5,” Tena said. During this time, the family moved from Oregon to Texas because of David’s job.
Then the problems started. There were pneumonias, ear infections and colds; Breana was always on antibiotics. Tena estimates she was sick eight months out of the year, and most illnesses required hospitalization — and not just for a few days. In between there were numerous catheterizations to place stents in her heart.
At a school pep rally, Breana learns that Make-a-Wish is sending her and her family to Disneyland.
In the seventh grade Breana was diagnosed with protein losing enteropathy (PLE), a condition where protein is not absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract. “The protein was what was keeping her healthy, so she had to get it,” Tena said. The fix was protein infusions, which took three or four hours each and required that she miss school. Although the infusions solved the protein problem, they weren’t a cure. “It maintained her for a little bit, but it was scarring her liver,” Tena said.
In her sophomore year, Breana’s cardiologist told her she would need a heart transplant. “She (the doctor) said all the infusions and medications were killing her,” Tena said. “She told Breana that she wasn’t going to get any better and that her heart was getting weaker.”
It was also taking a toll on her family. Tena remembers Thanksgiving of Breana’s sophomore year. She had pneumonia again and had to have a heart cath. “The whole family spent the holiday at the hospital,” Tena said. “She was so sick. She wasn’t really living a normal life. I just couldn’t stand it anymore.”
David had gotten to the same point. “It was like watching her life burn out,” he said. “I think she was starting to give up on life because she couldn’t enjoy it. You can’t imagine the emotion involved when you see your child is almost dying in front of you. It takes an emotional toll, and you’ve got to find a way to dig deeper, to be strong and lift them up, to find the positives in life. It’s hard. It is so hard.”
Nonetheless, Breana adamantly refused to be put on the transplant list because it meant someone would have to die for her to live. Though the infusions were taking longer, they had gotten them down to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, so she could go to school more. She still had to be hospitalized a lot, “but that was like all I knew in life,” Breana said. “I’d gotten pretty used to it. But then they told me I had to go back to three infusions a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That was it for me; I had just had it.”
After three open heart surgeries, nine catheterizations, a couple of strokes and countless infections and hospitalizations, Breana had had enough, and at 17, she went on the transplant list in the middle of January 2013. Two weeks later, on February 4, 2013, the Bladels got the call: there was a heart.
Fifteen-year-old Courtney Sterling from Lumberton, Texas had been killed in a car accident. She was driving under a learner’s permit, on the way to get ice cream with her mother, Dawn, and sister, Connely Burns who was sevenmonths pregnant. Connely and her unborn child were also killed. Dawn Sterling, 47, was the only survivor but was hospitalized with severe injuries.
Husband and father, Michael, was left in charge of sorting out the tragic circumstances and making funeral arrangements for his daughters. After consulting with other family members, Michael decided to continue Courtney’s life by allowing the medical team to recover her organs. Her lungs, kidneys, pancreas, liver and heart were saved and transplanted into five recipients.
In an operating room in Fort Worth, Breana’s chest was opened for a fourth time. The 17-year-old heart that was taken out had no life left in it. “The doctor said that normally the heart beats outside the chest for a little while,” Tena recalled, “but they said hers just went flat, like a soufflé. Breana made us get pictures.”
“It looked like a rotten tomato,” Breana said.
Dawn, Courtney Sterling's mother, meets Breana for the first time and listens to her beating heart.
Life with a New Heart
Since the transplant, Breana has made numerous trips to the hospital for catheterizations and heart biopsies to check on her progress and to make sure her body is not rejecting the heart. She is thrilled that she won’t need another one for a year. She takes a lot of pills, but fewer different medications. She has graduated from high school. And she’s met Dawn Sterling, the mother of her donor.
And Breana is pink for the first time! “She is the healthiest I’ve ever seen her,” Tena said. “She’s active and funny; she’s who she used to be. She gets better every single day.”
The Bladels welcome Michael and Dawn Sterling to Breana's high school graduation.
With good health comes new experiences. She has a boyfriend; she’s learned to drive and has a new car. She started college in the fall; she wants to work with children.
A new heart makes a big difference. “I used to be so tired all the time, but now I want to go out and do stuff,” Breana said. “I want to go to football games; I want to go to college. I want to experience the world now.”
Seventeen years of heart disease is a long struggle. “Breana taught us to take it one step at a time and never lose faith, never give up,” Tena said.
“In a weird way, I’m glad I had my heart disease,” Breana said. “I know how great life is so don’t waste it. Be thankful for it every day.”
To learn more about the process of receiving a new heart, see Heart Transplants on the Heart Insight website.
Organ Donation Central
United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) is the private, non profit organization that manages the nation’s organ transplant system under contract with the federal government. It collaborates with transplant and organ procurement professionals and thousands of volunteers. As a result there are an average of 79 life-saving organ transplants each day. Their website has information for patients, healthcare professionals, donor families and living donors.
Eleven organs and tissues can be donated: heart, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, liver, intestines, corneas, skin, tendons, bone, and heart valves.
For anyone interested in donating — one donor can save eight lives — you can register as a donor at their website. Or you can register when you get a driver’s license. Even if you have indicated your wishes on your driver’s license or a donor card, be sure you have told your family as they will be consulted before donation can take place.
Those seeking a transplant must go through a medical screening process at a transplant hospital.
There are currently 122,507 people who need an organ transplant. Every 10 minutes, someone is added to the national transplant waiting list. Despite advances in medicine and technology, and increased awareness of organ donation and transplantation, the gap between supply and demand continues to widen.
On average, 22 people die each day while waiting for a transplant.
As of September 2015, there had been 15,083 transplants from 7,322 donors performed so far this year.
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