by Kayla Sosa
For Jennifer DenBoer , January 7, 2013, started as just a regular day. In the morning, she worked at her restaurant job before going straight home. At some point she called her mom and brother to see if they were OK — she just had a weird feeling that something was wrong. Everyone was fine, and she went about her day.
At 2 a.m., she was eating snacks and watching TV with her then boyfriend. Suddenly, he looked over at her and – he said later – she looked like she was choking. He called 911 and performed CPR. Little did either of them know, she was seizing from cardiac arrest. She was 24-years-old.
DenBoer flatlined several times in the back of the ambulance before making it to the hospital where she had emergency treatment.
At the time, DenBoer didn’t know that she had cardiomyopathy, a disease in the heart muscle that runs in her family. A combination of the cardiomyopathy and several other factors, including having spent time in the hot tub, led to her heart losing function, otherwise known as cardiac arrest. According to the American Heart Association, over “350,000 cardiac arrests happen outside of a hospital setting” and are often fatal.
The Mayo Clinic says that the lack of oxygenated blood can cause permanent brain damage or death in seconds. While people can go into cardiac arrest without having heart disease or a previous heart issue, most are caused by a preexisting problem. Some risks include a family history, “smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and a sedentary lifestyle.”
The average rate at which your heart is supposed to pump blood in and out is about 65 percent. When DenBoer went into cardiac arrest, she was in the single digits.
After paramedics worked on her from the house to the hospital, DenBoer was put into a chemically-induced coma, in which the brain and body are cooled to prevent organs from shutting down. This was to keep her alive and functioning while the doctors focused on treating her.
Still in the coma, DenBoer had another major cardiac arrest, and the toll on her body was significant.
DenBoer ’s family became rock-solid support for her, taking up the entire waiting room in the ICU.
“My dad was the director,” she expressed. “He would talk to the doctors and tell people when they could come and see me. My brother was always quiet and would read; my mom would cry; my stepdad would try to make everybody laugh. Everyone handles things differently.”
When DenBoer was aroused from the coma and gained back some memory, she couldn’t have prepared herself for the journey ahead of her; her whole life had shifted. She had a pacemaker-defibrillator put in and wasn’t allowed to work or drive for six months.
Out of the hospital, DenBoer was taking medication to take the pressure off of her heart and make it easier for her body to operate. Her family banded together and helped with day-to-day tasks and getting to and from appointments.
Flash forward to May, 2016: DenBoer ’s health has been slowly improving. She has headed her doctor’s advice and pushed through the all of the challenges she faced as a result of the cardiac arrest. It’s Mother’s Day, and she’s working back at the restaurant.
“I’m working and it’s really hard, I’m hot and slowing down, and I can’t catch my breath,” DenBoer said.
The next day, she called her doctor and told them she thought something was wrong. She was admitted to the Spectrum Health Heart Center, and then take to the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) to get a right heart cath put in. A heart cath is a thin tube inserted into a vein in the neck or groin, and sensors in the catheter measure the pressure and blood flow of the heart. After the procedure, DenBoer ’s doctors told her she was going to need a heart transplant.
“I was kind of stunned for a second,” DenBoer expressed. “I said, ‘OK, what are we gonna do?”
DenBoer was put on the heart transplant list, and in the meantime was administered an IV-drip medication called Milrinone that helped her heart pump and relaxed the blood vessels doing the bulk of the work. While the medication worked for a while, it wasn’t long before she noticed she was becoming fatigued very quickly, even after walking up just three steps of stairs.
While the medication began to work less and less, and she waited for a heart, doctors fitted DenBoer with an LVAD, a Left Ventricular Assist Device.
“They have to attach it to your heart; cut your side, break your ribs, put this mini, mini motor, take a piece of your heart off, attach it, run a cord out to your stomach, attach it to batteries,” DenBoer said. “You’re battery operated.”
On May 3, 2017 DenBoer went in for heart transplant surgery.
“He literally held my old heart and my new heart in his hands,” DenBoer said of her doctor. “Which is crazy.”
The operation was hard on DenBoer ’s body.During surgery, she was hooked up to an ECMO machine, which pumps and oxygenates the blood outside of the body; it was keeping her alive when her body couldn’t.
When DenBoer woke up after surgery, she didn’t recognize her family and was even confused about who she was. It was then that the doctors realized she had lost so much blood in the surgery that she had a stroke. It was 45 days until DenBoer was released from the hospital.
Today, DenBoer stands healthy, scars and all, and is still optimistic despite all the barriers she faced.
Reflecting on all she’s experienced and learned in the past six years, DenBoer said that if you feel something is not right with your body, always get a second opinion. Six months before she went into cardiac arrest, she had felt something was wrong; she had palpitations and would often get light headed.
“If you know something’s wrong, if you feel it, and somebody tells you no, get a second opinion,” DenBoer said. “Listen to your body, because only you know what it’s telling you. Even if you don’t, go to a doctor and try to find out.”