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Heart Transplant Patient Story: Meet Mary Ann Wahl

The Challenge

Prior to a life-changing transplant at UPMC Presbyterian, Mary Ann Wahl’s heart condition prevented her from experiencing the many joys of raising her daughter, Katy.
Mary Ann Wahl
Mary Ann, a dietitian at UPMC Presbyterian, recalls the simple things she was unable to do, such as teaching little Katy how to skip rope or pushing her on a swing, because the activities were too strenuous.
 
“I had a 4-year-old and I wasn’t allowed to pick her up,” Mary Ann remembers. “I wasn’t allowed to pick up anything heavier than five pounds.” Even ordinary tasks left her gasping for air. “Brushing my teeth and chewing food resulted in shortness of breath,” she recalls.
 
These disappointments and struggles were caused by restrictive cardiomyopathy — a disorder in which the heart chambers are unable to fill properly with blood because of stiffness in the heart. The stiffened heart walls cannot stretch to allow enough blood to fill the ventricles between heartbeats. As the condition worsens, heart failure occurs. Heart transplantation becomes the only effective surgery for patients with restrictive cardiomyopathy.

The Solution

In November 2000, after Mary Ann had spent approximately two years on the organ waiting list, a donor heart was found for her. The surgery was performed by Robert Kormos, MD, co-director of the UPMC Heart Transplantation Program. After a three-month recovery period, she felt fantastic, began walking four miles a day, and made plans to embrace life with her husband, Bob, and, of course, her daughter.

The Results

After surgery, Mary Ann had the strength to serve as a homeroom mother, while Katy was in elementary school. “We took my daughter to Disney. We would not have been able to do that without my transplant,” she recalls. With her renewed lease on life, Mary Ann also joined the choir at Sunset Hills United Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon as a soprano, an activity she continues to enjoy. She and her family also were able to make a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Ireland. (Katy, now 16, is a student at Mt. Lebanon High School with a keen interest in art.)
 
Mary Ann says her transplant has given her important insights to share with UPMC Presbyterian patients, especially those awaiting heart transplants. “Usually after the surgery, there’s a sense of sadness that someone had to die for you to get a transplant,” she says. “Eventually, you understand that you are not the cause of that person’s death. You grow to admire the selflessness of individuals and their loved ones who consent to donate their organs so others can live.”

The transplant also has given Mary Ann a unique perspective on the nutritional advice she provides to cardiac patients. “One of the favorite parts of my job is educating patients about the need to restrict or eliminate sodium from their diets, because salt causes the body to retain fluid, which in turn creates additional stress on the heart,” she says. “This is a perspective I can share through first-hand experience, so I think the message resonates with my patients.”

Mary Ann’s treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.
 

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