For Danquein Horton, the holidays have taken on a whole new meaning this year. “I’m more excited for Christmas than ever before, I’m like a child,” Horton said. “We usually just get a tree but we’ve decorated everything this year. We’re going to celebrate. We’re going to give thanks like never before.”
This year is different because for the first time in more than 20 years, Horton believes her health issues are behind her, all thanks to a stranger’s decision to give her the “ultimate gift.”
Life changed for Horton when she was just 13 and first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system.
Horton began a year and a half of treatment including chemotherapy and radiation which put the cancer in remission. But just six years later, the cancer returned and Horton, then 20, began another round of chemotherapy and radiation. This time her treatment lasted two and a half years and by July 2004 her cancer was gone. For a second time Horton had defeated cancer. It was an especially good year because in December, Horton learned she was pregnant. While this would make for a happy ending, it’s only half of Horton’s story.
Almost immediately following her first chemotherapy treatment in February 1997 Horton noticed her heartbeat becoming erratic. Occasionally throughout the chemotherapy treatments she would be treated for heart arrhythmias. Her condition would improve and then worsen. By February 2012, her condition had progressed to the point where she was referred to Dr. Biswajit Kar, Chief and Program Director, Medical Division, Center for Advanced Heart Failure, Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Texas Medical Center, and Professor, Program of Advanced Heart Failure, McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.
Dr. Kar began treating Horton’s condition through drugs and other therapies. “I would get better and then I’d get worse,” Horton said. She was still working at her job as a surgical tech and all the while dealing with her heart issues. In addition, she had to care for her daughter, Damija, who was 10 years old.
Everything came to a screeching halt August 6, 2015. Horton was struggling to breathe and was taken to the hospital. Fluid had collected around her heart to where she could barely function. “It was really scary, I didn’t know my name or where I was,” Horton said. “Thankfully they drained the fluid from around my heart and I started feeling much better, but from that point forward my health became my top priority, I was going to do whatever I needed to do to get better.”
Just a few weeks later, Horton was connected to a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) and placed on the waiting list for a heart transplant. The LVAD is an implantable device that circulates blood from the left ventricle of the heart to the rest of the body, and can serve as a bridge to heart transplantation or as a long-term treatment option for patients who can’t receive a transplant.
“I had fought against the LVAD for as long as I could,” Horton said. “I was never worried about myself. I was always worried about my daughter. Who would take care of her if I was gone? I had to get through this.” She soon learned her daughter was much stronger than she thought and Damija would become a source of strength and inspiration.
By the end of March 2017, Horton developed an infection and again had to be admitted to the hospital. Throughout the two week hospital stay Damija was at her mom’s bedside. “She would get up and go to school and then come back to the hospital after school so she could stay the night with me,” Horton said. “I would try to get her to spend time with family and friends just to get her out of the hospital, but she wouldn’t leave. She kept up her grades and also helped me keep my spirits up.”
The infection eventually cleared and Horton returned home where the wait continued for a new heart.
Just a few months later, as summer was drawing to a close, Horton was at home sitting at the kitchen table with her mother. It was nearly two years since Horton had been placed on the transplant list. “I remember talking with my mom about how I’d never even packed a bag for the hospital. All this time waiting and it was as if I wasn’t even expecting to get the call for a transplant,” Horton said.
Horton stood up from the kitchen table and went to her room to pack a bag. Later that same evening, the phone rang. It was the call Horton and her family had been waiting to receive. Horton arrived at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center around 10 p.m. on August 1 and received her new heart the very next day.
“I really can’t explain it; I just remember feeling so calm the day of the transplant,” Horton said. “I knew this was the heart for me. I was never nervous.”
On August 26, Horton left the hospital. She still visits doctors regularly for follow-up appointments but to date has had no setbacks and hopes to return to work soon.
For the first time since 1997 Horton is enjoying the holidays without a serious health crisis on her mind. “I’m so grateful for life. It’s humbling to think another family lost a loved one and yet this individual was gracious enough to give up their organ so that I could have a second chance,” Horton said. “I appreciate life more than ever before and I appreciate my daughter more than she’ll ever know for helping me get through this. I know everyone thinks their child is the greatest but I know mine is truly special.”
Click here to learn more about Memorial Hermann’s heart transplant program.