Dianna Howell finally has a new heart.
The 59-year-old North Albany woman underwent an eight-hour transplant procedure on Saturday at the University of Washington Medical Center and is recuperating in the Seattle teaching hospital’s intensive care unit, her husband told the newspaper.
“She came through surgery like a champ,” Jeff Howell said on Monday. “They took the ventilator out today (and) she’s progressing very well.”
Dianna Howell was one of 20 patients with end-stage heart disease who lost their place on the transplant waiting list in August 2018 when Oregon Health & Science University abruptly suspended the state’s only heart transplant program after all four of the program’s cardiologists decided to leave, for reasons that have never been fully explained.
Most of those patients were picked up fairly quickly by other transplant programs, but the sudden influx of patients from OHSU strained resources in the region. And because Howell’s case was especially complicated, there were long delays before the University of Washington agreed to accept her in March.
Since then, Howell and her family have been waiting for the phone to ring with the news that a compatible donor heart had become available.
For years, Howell suffered from a rare form of apical hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that caused her heart to beat erratically with the least exertion. When she was admitted to the OHSU transplant program in July 2017, she was told that without a new heart, she likely had only about a year and a half to live.
“It’s been two years,” an emotional Jeff Howell said on Monday. “It became almost a fantasy that it was going to happen.”
Early this year, his wife’s condition took a turn for the worse. She began experiencing frequent bouts of crippling weakness along with terrible chest pains, bouncing back and forth between Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis and the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. In February, she was airlifted to UW for emergency treatment.
Finally, despite fears that it would interact badly with her other medications, doctors tried a drug called disopyramide to stabilize her wildly beating heart. The gamble paid off. She was able to return home, and her condition improved enough that she was admitted to the transplant program.
In recent weeks, however, her health had again gone into decline and her husband feared the worst.
“She was not doing well … she was pretty much sleeping all day,” he said. “She was at the end, or at least it seemed like she was.”
Then came a last-minute reprieve: On Friday, one of the doctors from UW called to say a heart was expected to become available the next day.
The Howells packed up their car and drove to Seattle, arriving that night. At 4 p.m. Saturday, Dianna went under the knife. Once again, Jeff was condemned to sit by the phone for periodic updates on his wife’s condition. Family members helped keep vigil in the hospital — his mother, two grown children, brother, sister and brother-in-law all joined him in the waiting room.
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Around midnight they got the word: The transplant was a success.
Dianna was the last to know: She was unconscious until Monday morning.
At first, her husband said, she didn’t know where she was or what had happened. When the doctors told her she had a new heart, the news took a few moments to sink in. And then she started to smile.
“The look on her face today when she realized she got the transplant — I’ve never seen her that happy,” Jeff said.
Dianna Howell still faces a long recovery. According to her husband, she’ll probably remain in intensive care for another two or three days, then move to an acute care bed.
After that, she’ll need to spend a minimum of three months in special transplant housing in Seattle, where she’ll be close to her doctors for follow-up care and testing to make sure her body isn’t rejecting the new heart.
One of the requirements is that she be accompanied by a caregiver at all times.
The Howells' son, Brandon, is taking a leave of absence from work so he can stay with his mother Monday-Thursday. Jeff, who manages the couple’s small business in Albany, will make the 6½-hour trip to Seattle each week so he can watch over his wife Friday-Sunday.
“The drive gets short if you do it enough times,” he joked. “I can listen to books on tape.”
Howell said he’s had very little sleep since getting the phone call from the transplant doctors on Friday.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” he said. “I haven’t had a chance to decompress yet.”
But one of the emotions he’s been feeling is gratitude that his wife — who’s been battling heart problems for decades — can finally look forward to getting her life back.
“Her 60th birthday is Monday the 16th,” he said. “She got a nice early birthday present.”