Kelly Clough watches her daughter Ciana color on a Saturday morning earlier this month. Clough, now 34, is the recipient of a heart transplant. (Megan Sheridan/ of The Norhtwestern)
Kelly Clough’s bad heart at the age of 31 was one of those situations the greatest medical minds can’t really figure out.
One day, she was an apparently healthy young woman working a somewhat physically taxing job and anticipating the birth of her first child. The next, she was struggling for each breath she took. She had a heart attack on July 28, 2006. Her baby was born by emergency Cesarean section the next day.
She was stunned. “It boggles your brain, especially when you are so young. We had no history of heart trouble in my family, on either side.”
The heart attack was just the beginning of a harrowing journey that included a second heart attack and eventually a heart transplant at St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee.
Today, at 34, the Oshkosh woman has a new heart and is enjoying being a mother to Ciana, nearly 3, in a way she wondered if she’d ever be able to.
She credits the heart transplant, the generosity of organ donors and the fine care at St. Luke’s as well as the attention she has received from AnnMarie Swanson, a nurse practitioner at Aurora Medical Center’s cardiology department in Oshkosh.
Swanson is in an elite group of women nurse practitioners in the field of cardiology in the Oshkosh area. “I’m pretty much the only one,” she said. It’s a demanding field but one for which Swanson has always held a deep fascination. About 75 percent of her patients are women.
Swanson has great confidence in male cardiologists in the area, but said sometimes a woman can relate better to other women, she said.
From day one Clough appreciated the way Swanson spoke to her and helped her understand her condition and treatment. She entered Clough’s life following her second heart attack when Ciana was just 15 months old. The first heart attack left her with no residual heart damage, but that wasn’t the case for the second attack. Clough underwent a triple-bypass surgery and was sent home with an arsenal of medications. That episode marked the time when Clough’s life began to deteriorate rapidly.
“It took me quite a while to come to terms with the fact that I’d had a massive heart attack. I was weak and it was difficult for me to connect with my baby.
“She was 15 months old, that age when they want to constantly be on your hip. I could not lift her, carry her or play with her the way a normal mom would,” Clough said.
Her friend Melanie was like a sister to Clough, taking over care of Ciana. Other family members were very helpful. But Clough said Swanson has a special place in her heart for her determination to get her well. Clough was on a regimen of medicine and rehabilitation after the surgery but she wasn’t improving. She suffered from congestive heart failure and was in and out of the hospital often.
“A big portion of her illness was physical and psychological. It globally affected her life. She missed her baby’s birthdays, couldn’t work at all and struggled to get through daily life,” Swanson said.
Despite the fact that her color was bad and she could not walk across a room without getting winded, the evaluation team at the Milwaukee hospital determined Clough wasn’t in bad enough shape to qualify for a new heart. Swanson went to bat for her, insisting she be evaluated again. This time she was put on the waiting list. That was in February 2008. She received the transplant on May 26, 2008.
Her life changed dramatically for the better. She was able to walk immediately and without the shortness of breath that had plagued her earlier. “I felt better immediately. I knew it had gone really well.”
The contrast between before and after is remarkable.
“She looks like a million bucks. It’s amazing to realize she was close to death. When I see her come in vibrant and smiling it’s amazing to realize I could assist with that,” Swanson said.
Clough’s life expectancy has been significantly improved. She has had to give up her job as a certified nursing assistant due to the physical nature of the job. She is taking classes to begin a new career as a paralegal.
She is grateful to Swanson and the rest of the medical team, and her family and friends. She is especially thankful for the donor’s heart that beats in her chest. Clough was an organ donor before her medical emergency arose. Now, she understands why.
“Everyone pretty much takes their health for granted. I know I did,” she said. “I still have friends who don’t want to be organ donors and I do understand that everyone has a right to make their own decision. But waiting for a transplant might change their minds.”
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