Throughout the month of February, affectionately known as American Heart Month, the News Blog will highlight news and stories related to cardiovascular health from across Penn Medicine.
In April of 2011, Navaz Mehta, a 43-year-old busy sales operations director from Dresher, Pa., was getting ready for work when her stomach started feeling uneasy and she noticed a tingling sensation in her arm. “It didn’t make sense to me that I was having tingling,” said Mehta. So she got in her car and drove straight to the emergency room. After an electrocardiogram (EKG) showed abnormalities in Mehta’s heart, she was admitted to a local hospital, where she was diagnosed with triple vessel heart disease — a narrowing of all three coronary arteries — an unusual diagnosis for someone in their 40s, especially for a woman. Doctors told her that her arteries were clogged, so clogged in fact that there wasn’t even room to implant stents to help open them up. And her heart was so damaged that even a bypass procedure would only be a short-term fix. So, doctors put in an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) to automatically shock her heart in the event that it stopped. They also put her on medication, and then sent her home.
Mehta (front, red blazer) with her coworkers on National Wear Red Day in 2014
Mehta returned to her normal routine, though somewhat altered with the fear of what could be going on inside her body. She became even more determined to continue the weight loss journey she had started two years earlier, when she had also decided to quit smoking. She had always struggled with her weight, but things were different now. She was determined to get as healthy as possible.
Nearly two years later, in January 2013, Mehta once again felt uneasy and fatigued. She knew something wasn’t right, but chalked it up to a long, cold winter. By the time she saw her doctor and had another EKG a few weeks later, she ended up back in the emergency room. Mehta was admitted to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on February 21, 2013 (during American Heart Month, coincidentally).
The next day, doctors implanted a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to help Mehta’s heart pump blood normally. But she was still in and out of the cardiac intensive care unit (CICU) with on-going issues. Three weeks after getting the LVAD, she was put on the waiting list for a heart transplant.
Then at around 9 p.m. on April 1, 2013, Mehta was packing up her stuff to head home the next morning (and feeling nervous about leaving), when a nurse came into her room and told her to stop packing. She describes the moment as being “stopped in her tracks” and then told that a heart was available for transplantation the next day. Soon, her shock turned to disbelief — it was April Fool’s Day after all — but it was no joke. She was going to get a new heart.
Her shock was somewhat warranted, though, since there are fewer heart donors for women than men, partly due to their smaller size, so the wait times tend to be longer than for men, according to Lee Goldberg, MD, MPH, medical director of Penn’s Heart Failure and Transplantation program.
Mehta didn’t get much sleep that night. She says, “It was the longest night of my life… I was numb, crying, happy.” Mehta got her new heart on April 2, 2013.
Each year, Penn Medicine performs 55 to 60 heart transplants and since the heart transplant program began, Penn has performed more than 1,000 heart transplants — more than all the other hospitals in the Philadelphia region combined. “We’re taking someone with end-stage heart-failure and transforming them, so they can live a full life. We’re giving them back a sense of normalcy,” says Goldberg.
Today, nearly two years since her transplant, Mehta says she feels better and more invigorated than ever before. She stays busy with her job, works out five to six days a week (she’s lost 70 pounds over the last six years!), and was even out shoveling snow following a recent storm. She loves to read, travel, go to movies and spend time with family and friends. Volunteering is also important to her, especially helping make dinners every couple months at the Clyde F. Barker Penn Transplant House, a guest house for transplant patients, families and caregivers. Mehta says, “I live every day as if my donor is watching.”
Goldberg says it’s important for women to take their symptoms seriously, since heart disease is the number one killer of women. Thankfully, he says about Mehta, “Looking at her now, you would never know that she was near-death. She’s a healthy, vibrant woman. It’s like flipping a switch through the miracle of modern medicine.”