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“…Often I think of my [heart] donor and my donor’s family,” says Melissa Pipes.

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Melissa Pipes, 55

When Melissa Pipes was in her early 40s, her heart began skipping beats. Her primary care doctor did an EKG, which came back abnormal, and that led to a visit to a cardiologist and a heart catheterization. Melissa was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, the same disease that led to her mother’s death at age 55 in 1987. The cardiologist recommended that Melissa have a defibrillator implanted.

Despite the defibrillator, Melissa weakened over the years. “I had no energy whatsoever,” she says, which impacted her ability to work as a teacher’s aide to special needs students in Brandenburg, Kentucky. It was hard to gather the energy to go to work; when she was able to work, she would come home exhausted and go to bed. Her ejection fraction, which measures the percentage of blood leaving the heart when it contracts, was down to 10 percent. (A normal heart’s ejection fraction ranges between 50-70 percent.)

It became apparent to Melissa’s cardiologists that she needed a heart transplant. After undergoing a series of tests, her name was put on the list on March 10, 2017.

Several weeks later, on Easter Sunday, Melissa’s cell phone rang. An unknown number popped up so she didn’t answer, but when it rang again from the same number she picked up. “It was Jewish Hospital calling me; they said, ‘We have a potential heart for you,’” she says. By the next morning, Melissa was undergoing transplant surgery. “They said it fit just like a puzzle piece,” Melissa says. After nine days, she was discharged and sent home.

Melissa began doing cardiac rehab, but her heart took an emotional hit in July 2017 when her husband of almost three decades was killed in an ATV accident. “I had a bump in the road there, and I fought depression. That was a hard time,” she says. These days, Melissa takes two types of anti-rejection medications, has lab work done once a month, and has a heart cath once a year.

As a result of her transplant experience, Melissa has become vocal about encouraging others to put themselves on the Kentucky organ donor list. “I know it brought me closer to God. It’s given me a different outlook on life. I don’t take things for granted,” she says.

Not only did Melissa personally benefit from a donation, her husband was a tissue donor. Being both the receiver and giver of a life-sustaining gift brings both joy and a feeling of responsibility. “So often I think of my donor and my donor’s family,” she says. She tries to spread the word about organ donation; “If you can find it in your heart to be an organ donor, you can help so many people with a second chance at life,” she says.

P.S. Read about more women who faced unexpected heart ailments head-on.

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