Woman Receives Life-Saving Heart and Lung Transplants
On the surface, Maureen Sweeney seems like an ordinary woman in her 60's, healthy and active in her community. A retired commercial graphic artist, she spends her time drawing, taking care of her dog and writing a book. The book's subject? Her near-death experience. As it turns out, Maureen is not so ordinary after all. Behind her slender frame, gleaming eyes and big smile is the story of a second chance.
To doctors, nurses and staff in the heart and lung transplant programs at Penn Medicine, Sweeney is considered a hero – she is the oldest patient ever to receive both a heart and lung transplant at Penn. Now briskly walking the halls of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), Sweeney is considered somewhat of a celebrity. Just a few years ago, she faced a long and hard recovery after heart and bilateral lung transplants, and taking just a few steps seemed almost impossible.
Sweeney was born with a congenital defect known as patent ductus arteriosis (PDA), which affects blood circulation and causes the lungs' arteries to thicken over time. She was told that eventually she would need a lung transplant and heart repair surgery.
"We always ask ourselves, 'Is there something short of transplant that we can do for them?'" says Nancy Blumenthal, senior nurse practitioner, Penn lung transplant program. "Our prime directive is not to transplant as many people as possible but to give each individual the best quality of life for as long as possible."
At age 50, Sweeney's condition worsened and she was forced to stop working. Five years later, she was barely able to function, even at home. She made an appointment to see her cardiologist, Mariell Jessup, MD, medical director of the heart failure and transplant program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Jessup confirmed that Sweeney would inevitably need a heart transplant.
"Looking at this energetic woman today, it is hard to believe how desperately ill she became before her transplant surgery. Only someone with her determination and spirit could have survived what she went through," says Dr. Jessup.
Sweeney was admitted to HUP in 2001 for the heart and lung transplants. She would celebrate her 56th birthday at the hospital. Just before her procedure, she weighed only 89 pounds. She recalls: "My heart was dying. I could barely complete my will – the handwriting was shaky." After a successful procedure, Sweeney knew the road to recovery would be a long one, but she remained in good spirits.
Typically, heart or lung transplant patients are able to leave the hospital three to seven weeks following their transplant, but Sweeney remained at HUP for 10 months. At first, she was barely conscious and unable to speak. She slowly became stronger and was able to stand and walk in the intensive care unit with the help of her physical therapy team. Sweeney attributes her recovery to her strong support system and the expert and compassionate care of Penn's lung transplant and heart failure and transplant teams.
Post-transplant patients remain connected with their transplant team for life. "Each patient has unique health needs and we work together as a group to determine how best to meet those needs. As a result, every patient bonds with someone on our team," says Blumenthal. "There is a phenomenal spirit of caring among our colleagues."
"It was hard, but I'm a fighter," says Sweeney. "I may be little, but I'm tough – I don't quit. This hospital [HUP] saved my life. Dr. Jessup has been my doctor for 12 years – she is a friend and mentor. I also had the support of over a dozen friends, which was pivotal to my progress."
"Maureen is an inspiration to us," adds Dr. Jessup. "She had to learn to walk again. Now, she is healthier than most 60-year-olds without a transplant."
In 2005, Sweeney was able to once again ride her bicycle unassisted on the boardwalk in Ocean City, NJ – a goal she set for herself seven years earlier. With this achievement also came a fresh outlook on life.
"Most people don't get a second chance at life. It's taken me years to realize the impact of what I have. I was on death's doorstep and given another chance to live. At first, I was in shock and didn't realize what was happening to me. But now, as I adjust to my new life I realize that my new heart and lungs have changed me. My vitality has increased dramatically; I can think better--in fact, I feel like the bionic woman. I am grateful and humble. This experience has made me a totally different person."
Even Sweeney's sense of humor has grown. When her insurance company called to inform her that she had exceeded the lifetime limit, Sweeney joked that her body is worth over $1 million.
These days, Sweeney spends her time writing, creating art and visiting patients who are waiting for transplants. A local artist, she shares her heroic journey though her artwork and has donated many of her photographs and drawings to the cardiac care, renal and lung units at HUP. She hopes her artwork encourages current patients and gives them a renewed sense of hope.
Sweeney exercises six days a week and competed in the 2008 Transplant Olympics in Pittsburgh. She serves as secretary for the HUP chapter of Second Chance, a patient-run support group for heart transplant recipients. Sweeney vows that her headstone will have two birth date inscriptions – her natural birth date and August 31st, 2001, the day she received a new heart and lungs. Perhaps a quote that hangs on a wall of her home says it best: The bird with the broken and mended wing flies the highest.