Hope floats

November 03, 2010

Eleven-year-old undergoes transplant, aspires to bring joy she received to others

Five days before Christmas, Shelby Hedgepeth’s wish list changed. All she wanted was a gift she would never see or touch, but it would save her life.

Worsening symptoms

Other than the usual bouts with basic childhood illnesses, Shelby had always been the picture of health. In a matter of days, her world turned upside down.

On Dec. 4, 2007, Shelby’s 11th birthday, she developed symptoms similar to a cold — malaise and a cough. When the lingering cough wouldn’t go away, Shelby’s mother, Suzanne Dorchester, took her to the pediatrician who made the diagnosis of bronchitis. Six days later, the same symptoms landed her back at the doctor where she was given a breathing treatment and steroids. Finally, on Dec. 15, Suzanne took Shelby to a local Emergency Department where a chest X-ray revealed heart failure.

Short on breath and time

Shelby was referred to Children’s. Upon arrival, she was extremely weak and winded, with her heart functioning at less than 10 percent. After an initial echocardiogram and EKG, physicians diagnosed her with dilated cardiomyopathy — a condition that enlarges the heart and can lead to heart failure.

"It’s been a whirlwind," Suzanne said. "Two weeks before the diagnosis, I had a completely healthy daughter. Who would have known that when she came down with a cold, it was really because of an enlarged heart?"

"She was very sick with incredibly poor heart function, ventricular dysrhythmias and pulmonary edema requiring intubation and mechanical ventilation," said Dr. Kristine Guleserian, surgical director of Pediatric Cardiac Transplantation at Children’s and assistant professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Ventricular dysrhythmias can be fatal within days or weeks — Shelby desperately needed a miracle.

A wish come true

Shelby was admitted and the waiting began. Then, on Christmas morning, the fifth-grader unwrapped a surprise gift from Dr. Guleserian — a crystal heart.

"After I told Shelby that a real heart was available, the expression on her face was just priceless," Dr. Guleserian said.

Shelby’s miracle had been fulfilled; a new heart was on its way. An avid dancer, Shelby’s face quickly turned from excitement to apprehension. "Will I get to dance again?" she asked. Once the team reassured her that after she received a new heart, dancing would be in the near future, preparations for the transplant began.

"I was shocked and really scared because I had never been in a hospital before," Shelby said. "But, Dr. G calmed me down. She is wonderful, like a best friend."

Dr. Guleserian began the operation after the donor team alerted the Operating Room that the heart was en route. The heart arrived in an ice chest, and after a final examination of the organ, Dr. Guleserian placed it in Shelby’s chest.

"As soon as we took Shelby off the heart-lung bypass machine, her new heart began beating immediately," Dr. Guleserian said.

A heart for others

"One would never know she had surgery," Dr. Guleserian said. "She flew through her transplant."

Just three and a half hours after the surgery, Shelby was extubated. She left the ICU a day later, and went home only four and a half days after the transplant. "A superstar," Dr. Guleserian said.

Shelby is back to her spunky self. She spent the summer diving, floating and splashing in the pool at her grandparent’s house.

Someday Shelby would like to bring the same joy she received to others. "After this experience, I want to be a doctor when I grow up."