Local family celebrating two new lives after woman’s heart transplant

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52-year-old Karen Tompkins of Hazelcrest sits in her room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital counting her blessings as she enters the new year.

“It’s been an amazing year for us,” she says. “We had a beautiful graduation, we have a beautiful baby, now we have a good strong heart.”

But that hasn’t always been the case. Just ask Dr. Allen Anderson, the medical director for the Center for Heart Failure. When he admitted Tompkins to the hospital on November 20th she was a very sick woman. Her heart was operating at less than 15%.

“She couldn’t breathe well, kidneys weren’t working properly, the pressure on her heart and lungs was very, very high,” Dr Anderson said.

A new heart was her only hope.

Meanwhile her daughter Taylor was 9 months pregnant, due with her first baby. No one could be sure what would arrive first at Northwestern—a new granddaughter or a new heart for Karen.

On December 10th, flat on her back and hooked up to countless lifesaving machines, Karen got a call that Taylor was in labor.

Karen planned to be there, by her daughter’s side for the delivery. But the health risk for Karen was too great.

“They said, I’m sorry, we aren’t going to be able to let you go.”

The mother and daughter team ended up using Facetime until 7 pound 12 ounce Maiya arrived on December 11th. Daughter Taylor and her newborn were also at Northwestern, just down the block at Prentice Women’s Hospital.

“I was hooked up to an unbelievable amount of machines and I was able to sit there and watch my granddaughter be born,” Karen said.

Seven days later, Karen’s transplant coordinator called with the news that brought about mixed emotions.

“At that moment I was thinking it’s Christmas, it’s the holidays, what greater blessing for me. And at the same time, you’re thinking about the loss for them,” she said.

Them is the donor’s family. Karen was given the gift of life when another family at the same time was struggling with a death. There are roughly 2200 heart transplants in the United States each year.

Dr. Anderson says, “This is a difficult time for patients. It’s a moment of joy for them and their families. It’s also a moment of sadness when they recognize that someone had to die for this gift to be passed on.”

The new heart ended up being a perfect fit for Karen Tompkins the week before Christmas.

Now on her way home finally, Karen is grateful for new life this new year. It is a second chance with her family and her new heart quite full as she thanks the donor’s family who made it all possible.

“I just want to say thank you. I could never say thank you enough.”

Karen’s story emphasizes the need for organ donation. It’s pretty easy to do, just flip your driver’s license over and sign the back. Also, talk it over with your family. If they are not aware of your wishes—they get the final call on what happens after you die.

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