Emotionally, college student Ally Smith’s heart told her to marry Mike Babineaux. But medically, it told her to push Mike away, because she wouldn’t survive to enjoy a full life with him.
But Babineaux wouldn’t take no for an answer, and next month the pair will have their dream wedding. An implanted mechanical pump that does the work of her faulty heart has led Smith to be dubbed “The Bionic Bride.”
And though they have a miracle of modern medicine to thank for making their wedding dream come true, Ally and Mike still believe it was love that conquered all.
“I just love her, and no one in my life could replace her,” Babineaux told Matt Lauer on TODAY Wednesday. “I wanted to see it through to the end, all the way.”
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The attractive young couple appeared on TODAY with Ally’s parents, Ronnie and Krista Smith, as well as Ally’s cardiologist, Dr. Roberta Bogaev. Together they told a story that is equal parts gripping medical drama and the stuff of romance novels.
All was well when college freshman Smith, a vibrant, athletic girl, met Mike Babineaux on the campus of Texas A&M in the fall of 2006. They began dating, but their relationship took an unexpected turn the following spring. Smith suffered dizzy spells and her usually abundant energy had been sapped.
“I was in a rowing competition, and all of a sudden, I realized I was waking up with my team around me,” Smith told NBC. “They had told me that I just fell backward and unconscious for, you know, 15 to 30 seconds.”
Doctors initially believed Smith had suffered from nothing more serious than dehydration, but she scheduled an appointment with her physician. He concurred with the initial finding — but Smith passed out again, this time in the doctor’s office.
She was rushed to the hospital and, after a battery of tests, got news that would turn her life upside down. She suffered from cardiomyopathy — more commonly, heart muscle disease.
“I just thought it would go away,” she said. “Kind of just like getting a cold. I thought it would reverse itself.”
Still, Babineaux stuck by Smith through her grueling therapy, and in September 2008, as Smith says, “got on his knee and, you know, with this big goofy face,” asked her to marry him.
Smith accepted, but just a week into their engagement, her body began shutting down. It looked like Smith wouldn’t survive to see her wedding day. She tried to return her engagement ring to Babineaux, but he wouldn’t take it.
“[Mike] told me even if I was on my deathbed, he was still going to marry me,” a tearful Smith told NBC.
Time was running out for Smith, who had not been successful in gaining a donor heart. But doctors still had an option — implanting what could be called a bionic heart into Smith.
Manufactured by the Thoratec Corp., the HeartMate II is a mechanical device implanted alongside the patient’s own heart that takes over the pumping function of the weakened muscle. As it pumps up to 10 liters of blood per minute, the HeartMate essentially does the heart’s work for it, allowing it time to rest — and, hopefully, heal.
“When we went in for our pump, [Ally] sat down and said, ‘These are my wishes if I don’t make it,’ ” Krista Smith told Lauer on TODAY. “Your 21-year-old is telling you what color casket she wants, and you’re saying, ‘No, we’ve got to get through this because you’re getting married.’ ”
The bionic bride
Despite life-or-death moments during two surgeries to install the HeartMate (the first installation didn’t take), Smith’s body has adjusted well. Lauer held up a microphone to Smith’s abdomen, and the faint whir of the pump’s motor could be heard. Smith wears a handbag across her shoulders containing the pump’s battery, along with extra batteries in case the juice runs low.
It’s not a conventional way to live, but “I’m 100 percent better than I was a year ago,” Smith told Lauer. “I mean, I’m normal. I do everything a normal person does.”
Her prognosis is good. Dr. Bogaev told Lauer Smith could likely survive five to 10 years with her HeartMate, buying her time for a heart transplant. Even better, Smith’s heart appears to be healing itself since it doesn’t have to work so hard, potentially eliminating the need for a transplant.
“When we first put the pump in, Ally didn’t have a pulse,” Dr. Bogaev said. “But now her heart is starting to show signs of recovery.”
And on TODAY, the young couple were looking forward to a wedding instead of a funeral. When a taped segment showed Smith modeling her wedding gown, she quickly covered her fiance’s eyes.
Lauer told Babineaux, “You didn’t see it, but the gown is beautiful. You have a strong and fabulous bride.”
And a true Texan as well: Smith plans to wear bright blue cowboy boots under her wedding gown.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints