SHADE — On New Years Day 1995, Carolyn Korn’s blood pumped through her veins for the first time with the help of another’s heart.
Carolyn, 65, of Shade, was born with a hole in her heart. But it wasn’t until she was 39 that she began to notice the symptoms associated with this defect: shortness of breath, her lungs filling with fluid.
Carolyn, 65, was born with a congenital effect called transposition of the great vessel, essentially meaning that her heart was backwards. Specifically, her aorta artery went to her lungs and her pulmonary artery went to her brain.
And it was at the age of 39 when Korn knew her heart was beginning to wane, and that it was time to see a specialist, so she went to The Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus. While in Columbus she was told that her condition had elevated to congestive heart failure, and that within five years she would need a heart transplant. After hearing the news, Carolyn was able to continue on with life as normal until a year later, when the heart failure progressed and each breath became more difficult.
She began to work only half days, and in this time she also began testing to see if she could be a recipient for a new heart, including cardiac function and bloodwork tests. Luckily, she was approved as a candidate. However, being a new candidate for a heart transplant came with a catch.
“When you’re a (new) candidate you’re low on the totem pole,” she said.
And by December of 1994, Carolyn’s condition had finally caused her to collapse. She returned to OSU Medical Center and began receiving Dobutamine treatments that acted as a steroid to keep her own heart pumping.
“Your heart is a really good muscle.” Carolyn said. “But mine was getting so weak; just barely quivering.”
It was the condition of Carolyn’s heart that moved her higher up on the donor list.
“I probably had ten days to live,” she said.
But it was during the morning of a new year — Jan. 1, 1995 — that doctors informed Carolyn that a match had been found just for her. After her New Year’s Day surgery Carolyn and her husband, George, at her side, remained in the hospital for 30 days. After that she was transferred to Unverferth House, which served as a house for heart surgery recipients who were not well enough yet to return home. The house served as the couple’s home for six months as Carolyn continued to recuperate.
“When I first got it they said 5-7 years with this, ‘Don’t think you’ve got a new life extension. It’s usually 5-7 years,’” she said. I’ve had mine going on 21.”
However, as Carolyn soon learned, a new heart did not mean the end of troubles. While she felt fine, blood tests taken that first year indicated that her body was rejecting her new heart. She eventually made three to four trips to the ICU because of the issue, and continued to make trips to the hospital for IVs, including the drug Prograf. She also had to take up to 103 pills a day. And while eventually the fear of rejection went away, during her first two years with a new heart she also contracted a CMV infection, which attacks one’s weakened immune system. And, like all other heart transplant recipients, she developed type two diabetes because of the anti-rejection drugs. She injects insulin daily to combat it.
“I could exercise every day and eat right and (the diabetes) would still be there,” she said.
Recently, Carolyn was again diagnosed with congestive heart failure. But when offered another chance at a new heart, Carolyn, at the transplant cutoff age of 65, said no. The main reason, she said, was that she felt she was in such good shape at her age, but also didn’t want to risk the complications of another surgery at her age. A third heart could be rejected way faster than her second one, she said.
“Physically I still go go go 100 miles an hour,” Carolyn said. “And because of all the things that can happen I wasn’t ready to take that chance yet.”
The only time she notices her congestive heart failure is if she doesn’t eat right drinks too much water which can cause a shortness of breath and some fluid in the lungs.
“So I turned them down,” she said. “They told me I’m in such a good shape if I change my mind in a couple years that they would present my case to the surgeons to see if I was still eligible for (another) heart. I wasn’t ready to take that chance yet because I don’t consider myself sick.”
Carolyn said her doctor told her that she personally believes Carolyn made the right decision in turning down a new heart for the time being, and the plan is to keep performing testing and bloodwork to monitor Carolyn’s levels. She said she only takes 57 pills these days.
George said while his experience was not anything like his wife’s, he too is a recipient. In this case, George is a recipient of tissue in his neck after a swimming accident as a child left him with increasing pain and limited use of his right arm. Because of the positive experiences the couple have had with tissue and organ donations, they now volunteer with Lifeline of Ohio, which aid in the process of acquiring organs and tissue for donation. The couple encourages everyone to register as a donor. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so far in 2015 there have been 8,757 donor types, with 314,824 since Jan. 1, 1988.
Carolyn said because of the donation of a stranger in Ohio, she now has a life she can keep living to the fullest.
“I’m living everyday,” she said. “I get up everyday and go as hard and fast as I can. I don’t look at everyday as if it could be my last, because I always have plans for the next day.”
For more information, visit lifelineofohio.org.
Reach Lindsay Kriz at 740-992-2155 EXT. 2555.