Heart failure at 36 — Lodi, NJ woman receives transplant during pandemic
Stay alive through age 45.
That may sound easy to you — but until recently, Gina Westhoven wasn't too sure whether she'd be able to hit her personal goal.
Today, she's nearly six months into recovery from a major medical procedure that's likely to prolong her life by several years.
The Lodi resident was diagnosed with heart failure at the age of 36 in 2016, after a case of the common cold just wouldn't go away and eventually worsened.
"The day I found out, I thought I was going to die," she told New Jersey 101.5.
Gina has a family history of cardiomyopathy and would learn after her heart-failure diagnosis that she was suffering from cardiac sarcoidosis.
"My goal was to make it past 45 years old," she said. "But it was much bigger than that. I wanted to live to live. Not live to survive. I wanted to thrive."
Over the next couple of years, life changed completely for Gina. She underwent several treatments and procedures to help correct abnormalities and strengthen her heart to combat symptoms of heart failure such as fatigue and shortness of breath.
In the process, she lost 15 pounds in order to qualify for a spot-on heart transplant. And to help her heart pump blood, doctors installed a device that serves as a bridge to a full transplant. She had to dress and change the exit site of the device daily, and avoid activities that could interfere with the device's performance.
Then in December 2020, in the middle of a health crisis that's been targeting immunocompromised individuals, Gina received the call she had been waiting for — a new heart was waiting, and the surgery could happen the next day under Dr. Margarita Camacho at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
Because of the pandemic, Gina could not have any visitors with her before or after her surgery.
"Now I'm here going on six months post-transplant," she said. "It has been like a huge blessing. For me, I'm just super grateful to wake up."
Recovery is going rather well for Gina, now 41 years old, but the necessary steroids throw her emotions for a loop. Physically, on some days her body aches, and on others she's full of energy and feels like she could run a marathon. She's currently in cardiac rehab.
"I know I would not be here without the grace of God and Dr. Camacho and the entire Newark Beth team," she said through tears. "He placed them in my life for a reason."
Gina, who first became certified as an EMT in 2003, is hoping to go back to work in the next couple of months as a dispatcher for a hospital system. She wants to eventually return to volunteer work for a local ambulance squad, depending on the progress of her recovery.
Contact reporter Dino Flammia at firstname.lastname@example.org.