For four months, Paula McCammon was kept alive by a thumping mechanical heart, fighting to live for her 6-year-old daughter, family and friends.
Now, one year after a kidney and heart transplant, the single mom from a small island community in Washington, is healthy and active. Doctors say she has many good years ahead of her.
“It’s kind of surreal,” McCammon, 41, told TODAY. “My focus is on my family and taking care of myself. My future isn’t guaranteed.”
McCammon is sharing her positive experience to raise hope and awareness for organ donation: an average of 22 people a day die waiting for an organ transplant, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
McCammon is one of 1,625 patients worldwide to receive a total artificial heart, which temporarily replaces the two lower chambers of the heart and is hooked up to an external power supply. The longest anyone has lived on the device after heart failure is nearly four years, according to its manufacturer, SynCardia Systems Inc.
This is the second transplant for McCammon, who has lived with a donor heart since the age of 24. As a teen, she had a serious bout with mononucleosis and Epstein-Barr, which caused viral cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal thickening of the heart.
“This heart feels a lot stronger than the old one,” said McCammon, who lives in Marrowstone.
McCammon’s latest ordeal began in the spring of 2015, when her first heart transplant began to fail. University of Washington surgeons deemed a second one too risky, so she was airlifted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. After went into cardiac arrest last June —16 years after her first transplant — McCammon was hooked up to the external mechanical heart.
"It’s amazing how my body came through it all.” she said. “I was on kidney dialysis. My lungs had been damaged by the mechanical heart. The last two weeks, I was really uncomfortable… I remember waking up almost choking with so much blood.”
On Sept. 21, 2015, doctors found a heart and kidney match from a single donor, and subsequent surgery was successful. After three months of post-transplant care, she arrived home on December 29.
“She is actually doing quite well,” said Dr. Wayne Levy, professor of cardiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, who has treated McCammon since she was 21.
The average survival for a heart transplant patient is 16 to 17 years, according to Levy.
“Many are alive 25 years out and are now in their eighties,” he told TODAY. “Many who thought they would get five years, have had a relatively normal lifespan and are dying of old age, not disease."
Younger patients, who don’t have co-morbidities like lung disease, diabetes and stroke, may actually have a better quality of life after transplant.
Being a mom gave her strength
Despite warnings about health complications, McCammon was determined to be a mother. Her daughter Emma was born in 2009, only the 76th baby ever to be born to a heart transplant patient.
Becoming a mother gave her a new perspective and strength, said older sister, Julie Golzarian, a software engineer from Portland, Oregon.
McCammon is alive because she is “incredibly strong and stubborn," Golzarian, 51, told TODAY. “The positive attitude is more from being a parent."
Golzarian and another sister, Denise Craig, formed Team Paula, organizing others from their hometown to help care for McCammon during her long stay at Cedars-Sinai. They raised $20,000 to help support Emma while her mother was in the hospital.
The nonprofit Ava’s Heart provided some funds for housing in Los Angeles during follow-up care.
Just before New Year’s Eve, McCammon returned home to Emma, her fiancé Dave Lyle, his son Eli and their five animals.
McCammon said she is “pretty shocked” by her remarkable recovery. She tires easily and has some trouble concentrating for long periods of time, but otherwise feels healthy.
McCammon’s optimism “comes from Paula herself,” said Levy, and the critical support of family and friends.
She has a message of positivity for other patients who may be facing grave odds.
“You can sit and sulk about the things that happened to you,” said McCammon. “But there is always someone with something worse out there.”