Peanut Butter for Thanksgiving (and other Blessings)
It was the day before Thanksgiving when the Hedricks got “The Call.”
The Washington Regional Transplant Community (WRTC) had recovered a heart that would save 15-year-old Jennifer Hedrick’s life. “It was an absolute perfect match,” her father Steve remembers.
Jennifer was only 8 years old when she was first diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood. For years, Jennifer’s heart functioned somewhat normally, but quickly deteriorated when she turned 14.
The Virginia teen had a pacemaker inserted and was listed for a heart transplant at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC.
And they waited.
When the call finally came, doctors told the family that Jennifer needed to be in Washington immediately. Managing I-95 traffic from the Hedrick’s Fredericksburg home to DC is no small feat, made worse by the holiday rush. With so much on the line, the journey was truly a race against time. The first of many races Jennifer would win over the intervening years.
“Thank God, she’s not going to die.”
As she was prepping for surgery, Steve says the magnitude of what was happening struck his young daughter. “She realized someone had died,” Steve says. “We never knew who it was, only that her heart came from someone smaller, so I presume it was a child.”
There was no turkey or pumpkin pie awaiting the Hedricks the next day. Instead, the family gathered around a picnic of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and marveled in the “overwhelming symbolism” that Jennifer’s life had been saved on Thanksgiving.
Home for Christmas
Jennifer’s heart continued to beat strongly and steadily and as the weeks progressed and she grew stronger, Jennifer was able to leave the hospital and be home for Christmas.
“I remember looking at Jen and thinking ‘thank God, she’s not going to die.’ It was such a joy and a blessing that she was at home, among us. I can’t describe how great it was to see her when, by all rights, she should’ve been gone.”
Jennifer’s quality of life was taking a decided turn for the better. “She was able to be the teenager she couldn’t be before,” Steve says. At times rebellious, often reflective, Steve says Jennifer “was finally enjoying the quality of life we’d always wanted for her. She traveled to Europe, Hawaii, swam with dolphins; things she never would’ve done if not for her transplant.”
But at the same time as Jennifer’s health improved, her uncle Brad began to fall ill. Brad, who had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in 2004, witnessed firsthand Jennifer’s pre-transplant health issues, then her post-surgery series of milestones and setbacks.
When his doctors began discussing a heart transplant, Brad resisted. “Seeing the things going on with Jen made it more real, not an abstract” he explains. “I tried to hold off as long as possible in the hopes technology would save me.”
Brad struggled with his prognosis. “I was driving to my appointments, walking across the parking lot, walking up the stairs.” However, similar to his niece, Brad’s health began to quickly deteriorate.
Six years post-transplant, and three days shy of her 22nd birthday, Jennifer died suddenly. The family agreed to donation. “It’s what she would have wanted,” Steve explains. “We still feel so blessed and grateful that her donor family and WRTC gave us those six extra years,” he says. “Donation gave her that quality of life.”
Jennifer’s passing greatly affected Brad. With his health continuing to decline, Brad’s doctors became more insistent on listing him for a transplant. Yet, he resisted. “I didn’t see a transplant as a panacea,” he says. However, Brad’s reluctance was also fueled by a guilt that there must be someone more deserving than he.
“I asked myself ‘how many hearts does my family deserve,’” he says. “Jennifer had one, now they want to look for me? I’ve had a good life. I saw the quality of life it gave Jen. Shouldn’t someone else get that?”
Neither his physicians nor his family relented. By 2014, Brad’s heart was in rapid decline. While personally resigned to his fate, Brad’s cardiologist had other ideas. Finally convinced to fight, Brad went to VCU Health’s Pauley Heart Center where he was implanted with a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD), a bridge to a heart transplant.
Gratitude and Honor
After nearly two years on the LVAD, Brad received the heart transplant on March 18, 2015. He returned to full time work a year and a half later. He was able to exercise, working out three times a week. He became “a real person.”
“I’m here to do something good.”
“I don’t want to climb Everest,” he says. “I want to shovel snow. I want to mow grass. Every day is a day I wasn’t going to have. I’m positively giddy, being able to do regular stuff!”
Like so many transplant patients, Brad grappled with the fact that he lives because of a donor family’s generosity. “I was in the shower and realized I have a heart I wasn’t born with; it was in someone else,” he explains. “That’s very humbling. No one can go through that without being radically changed.
To honor his donor and his niece, Brad lives each day in wonderment.
“People ask me ‘how are you doing?’” he says, smiling. “Are you kidding me? Look around, the sun is shining! The sky is blue! I try not to be evangelistic, but try to make a positive influence. I’m here to do something good.”