26-Year-Old Goes from Sudden Heart Failure to Transplant Success Story

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It was a beautiful Saturday in Elko, Nevada when Ashley Biehl had her first softball practice of the season. She decided to ride her bike to and from practice to take advantage of the pleasant weather. It was on the ride home that Ashley started to feel overwhelming pain between her shoulder blades. She dismissed it as “first-day-of-practice” soreness. But at home, the pain intensified, moving down her arms. “I knew something wasn’t right,” she said.

Hours later, Ashley was being flown via AirMed to University of Utah Hospital, landing in Salt Lake City around 5:30am. When she got to the hospital, the doctors knew something was wrong immediately. At the young age of 26, Ashley had suffered a heart attack, gone into cardiogenic shock, and now the tissue of her heart was slowly dying.

Ashley had always lived an active lifestyle. She was a lifelong swimmer, a cross country runner in high school, and a member of a recreational softball league in her hometown of Elko. Twelve hours had passed from the time she first experienced symptoms of a heart attack to the time she got to U of U Hospital and was told she was having a heart attack. At that point, Ashley’s heart had lost the ability to pump on its own. She would need a heart transplant. It quickly became clear to her that heart disease can happen to anyone.

The wait began. Ashley vowed to stay active during the time she was waiting in the hospital and began setting personal goals. While walking the hallways of the cardiac ICU, she figured out one loop was an 11th of a mile and slowly increased her distance with each walk. “I tried to make sure I walked a mile every day and got as much exercise as I could,” she said.

Ashley’s care team monitored her heart, kept her stable, and waited for a matching organ to become available. As the days turned to weeks, Ashley relied on her circle of friends and family to keep her spirits high. “Members of the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) helped me feel like a real human while living in such a confined space,” she said. “One nurse brought me shampoo and books to read. Two other nurses would take turns braiding my hair so it wouldn’t get too knotted up. The care by the CVICU nursing staff was stellar.”

One month later, the call came—a heart became available for Ashley. Suddenly, time went from standing still to full speed ahead. She was taken into surgery in the early morning hours and woke later that day surrounded by family and friends, her new heart beating in her chest. In the days that followed, Ashley’s strong will was key to her recovery. Just three days after her transplant, she was up and starting down the hallway on her first lap. By day nine, she was back to a mile a day. On day eleven, it was time to go home. “She recovered extraordinarily well from the heart surgery,” said Jose Nativi-Nicolou, MD, a U of U Health cardiologist who was on the team overseeing Ashley’s care. “Her good attitude has made it one of the fastest recoveries after heart transplantation.”

According to Ashley’s cardiovascular team, she is not out of the woods yet. Due to her young age, she has a 50 percent chance of needing another heart transplant in about 12 years, which depends on the patient’s age and physical condition. “We expect longer life out of her than someone at a more advanced age,” said Stephen McKellar, MD, the cardiothoracic surgeon who performed Ashley’s transplantation. “Especially if she continues to adhere to all of the protocols that are in place for transplant patients.”

For Ashley, the last year has been an emotional and physical journey. She believes everything she has endured has made her a stronger, better person. “I appreciate the smaller things more,” she says. “I've learned to let the toxicity in my life go and to focus my energy on the people and things that bring me joy.” She has a new lease on life and intends to live it to the fullest.

Ashley remains focused on staying healthy and active. She’s ready to begin running again and looks forward to training for a half marathon. She is still setting personal goals and is working towards a very specific goal for the summer of 2018. “The Transplant Games of America are in Salt Lake City this summer,” she said, “and I will win a gold medal in a swimming event.”

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