Going Back to College with a New Heart

By Meredith Whittemore

“Ma’am, do you know why I pulled you over?”

It’s the question drivers worry will soon be followed by a traffic citation. But Shelby Rab’s driver had a unique reason for speeding that gained her leniency.

“She told the officer, ‘We’ve got to get to Houston to get her a new heart!’ He looked in, saw my LVAD, told her to slow down and let us keep going,” Rab said.

It was September 2018 and Rab was on her way from Nacogdoches to Houston to undergo a heart transplant. At just 20 years old, Rab had been on a mechanical heart pump, called an LVAD, for several months while she awaited a new heart.

Almost a year earlier, in November 2017, Rab had been flown by Memorial Hermann Life Flight® to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston for treatment of congestive heart failure. Physicians say it’s still unclear what caused the condition.

“By the time Shelby made it to us, she was in cardiogenic shock and her heart could not pump enough blood to meet her body’s needs,” said Sriram Nathan, MD, a cardiovascular disease specialist affiliated with Memorial Hermann-TMC. “We put her on a temporary support device before ultimately deciding she would need a more permanent solution.”

Living on Borrowed Time

Rab had a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, implanted. The battery powered device helps pump blood from the left ventricle of the heart to the rest of the body. Physicians worked with Rab to strengthen her heart and help her regain weight to become eligible for heart transplant. Prospective heart transplant recipients undergo a thorough evaluation before they are placed on the official wait list. Among the factors evaluated are the ability to recover from transplant surgery and the availability of a support system to enable the proper follow-up care required after transplant. 

“The evaluation process for being placed on the heart transplant list is a serious one,” said Dr. Nathan, who is also an associate professor at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “Heart transplant recipients have a huge responsibility to the heart donor’s family to take care of the precious gift they’ve received.”

Getting the Call

Rab was approved for a heart transplant and put on a waiting list. In September of 2018, Rab got the important call: transplant coordinators believed they had a heart for her.

“They tell you to always have a bag packed, in case you get the call, but of course I didn’t. So I rushed to pack my bag and had my boyfriend’s mother drive me to Houston,” said Rab.

After both Rab and the donor heart passed additional testing, she was cleared for the transplant.

“I was excited, but at the same time, I was sad for the family of the donor. It’s a very overwhelming situation to be in,” Rab said.

Living Life to the Fullest After Her Transplant

 Rab’s new heart is doing well and she is now focused on finishing up her degree at Stephen F. Austin University and living life to the fullest. “I can’t express how grateful I am. There are so many things I want to do, and now I have that opportunity,” said Rab.

“It’s rare to have someone so young in need of a new heart. But when we are able to help patients like Shelby chase their dreams without restriction, it gives you a great sense of pride and joy to be their physician,” Dr. Nathan said.

 “It sounds silly, but I’m able to drive and life is good. I’m excited to be able to return to college in-person this summer and graduate in December. I can’t say enough nice things about Dr. Nathan and the others involved in my care. They’ve been so kind, so amazing. He is one of my favorite people in the world,” Rab said.

National Donate Life Month

April is National Donate Life Month, a time to learn more about the importance of organ donation, to honor those who have saved lives through the gift of donation and to encourage everyone to register as an organ donor. To learn more about organ donation, visit www.organdonor.gov

Learn more about Memorial Hermann’s Heart Transplant program.

The Heart Transplant program at the Memorial Hermann Heart and Vascular Institute-Texas Medical Center is supported by physicians affiliated with the Institute’s Center for Advanced Heart Failure (CAHF). The  multidisciplinary advanced heart failure team is comprised of affiliated specialists in cardiothoracic surgery, advanced heart failure, mechanical assist devices, video-assisted surgery, high-risk coronary intervention and heart transplantation.

Comments

  1. Dr. Nathan is also my doctor. He is a great man. I would do anything for him. He was with me during my LVAD and then my heart transplant.

  2. I am so very happy that Shelby has had such a outstanding recovery due to her physicians and staff and the very deligent, suppotive new family that took on the loving responsibility and care to make her recovery such a success. May God bless the family and donor for their wonderful gift.

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