Late one evening in May 2021, 31-year-old Vanessa Trotter walked into Oregon Health & Science University with a heavy mix of emotions.
A donor heart had been found for her, but was she ready? The Medford, Oregon, woman pushed her doubts aside with the encouragement of her partner, Michael Maxson, and bravely accepted the priceless gift. After a five-hour surgery, she woke up May 17 feeling distinctly changed.
“I could tell my heart was different,” recalled Trotter. “It felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest. I swear I could hear it out of my eyes. Ba-boom! Ba-boom! I wondered why it was so loud. The doctors told me I wasn’t used to having a working heart. To fall asleep, I ended up having to count as a distraction.”
Six months after that life-changing day, Trotter is overwhelmed with gratitude. As a young woman who already has rebuilt her life once, when she left a broken home and became a foster child, she wants to encourage others who face seemingly impossible obstacles.
“I just want people to know that there is hope, and to not accept your situation as fate,“ she said.
Trotter, who moved to Medford in 2014, was born in Wichita, Kansas. She became a ward of the state at age 11 as her mother struggled with substance use disorder and her father was imprisoned. After temporarily staying in various foster homes and a group children’s home, Trotter and three of her youngest siblings moved three hours away to a rural town in North Central Kansas.
Their new foster family was welcoming, but strict. The family was white and lived on a farm, while Trotter and her city-born siblings were often the only Black students in their respective classes. Nonetheless, their new stable circumstances inspired them, and they vowed to do better than their birth parents had in life.
After Trotter became the first of her siblings to graduate from high school, she enrolled in a community college about an hour away. In addition to working as a student ambassador at the school, she took on more jobs to support herself: Trotter also became a certified nursing assistant and cleaned homes.
“I had it pretty good,” Trotter explained. “My foster parents cared about me and they stayed in touch after I left home. I felt like I could do this. College was a good time. I met a lot of people – including my partner, Michael.”
After earning an associate’s degree in science, Trotter wanted a change. She and her partner joined his mother and sister, who had recently moved across the country to Medford. In Oregon, Trotter started working for a health insurance company and moved her way up until she became an administrator.
But she started to feel unwell during summer 2020, months after the coronavirus pandemic overtook the world. She couldn’t walk half a block without getting winded. A COVID-19 test came back negative, and her primary care doctor prescribed an inhaler after suspecting she had asthma, but Trotter got worse, and began coughing up phlegm with blood.
In September 2020, she desperately sought help at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center. After a second negative COVID-19 test result, she was diagnosed with heart failure at the young age of 30. Body imaging also revealed multiple dangerous blood clots in her heart and lungs. The shocking news came from a cardiologist: Her only option was a transplant.
“I was just devastated,” Trotter said of her diagnosis. “It didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know what to do. I thought ‘I’m going to die.’ I was so scared.”
In November, Trotter took an emergency medical flight to OHSU, where she began the detailed process of being evaluated for a potential transplant. Although the multiple medications she was prescribed helped, she continued to struggle. The OHSU Heart Failure and Transplant Program team took her under their collective wings. Trotter remembered them telling her, “We’re going to do what we can to get you the help you need.”
She found herself tackling things few 30-year-olds do, including writing a will and advanced directive, all while being in intensive care. Trotter was laser-focused on getting better so her life could get back to normal. And then OHSU heart failure specialist Luke Masha, M.D., M.P.H., told her something she didn’t expect.
“Dr. Masha said: ‘You can’t work when you get out of here. You have to take time off. This is very serious,’” recalled Trotter. “I started crying. Work had been my life; it gave me something when I didn’t have anything else. It gave me money, a roof over my head – and it provided health insurance.”
It was a double-edged sword. She needed to pay for a lifetime of follow-up care after a transplant, but her condition made work medically unsafe. Trotter had been on family medical leave and was receiving short-term disability benefits through her employer, but they were about to expire. She knew others who had received federal disability benefits, but some weren’t doing well.
“I always told myself, ‘I’m never going to be on disability, I’m going to work.’” Trotter recalled. “To have someone say I can’t work anymore was emotional and traumatic. But Dr. Masha said he would help me get through this, fill out the required paper work and get the support I needed.”
In the meanwhile, Trotter and her partner – who had also stopped working to oversee her care in Portland – were thankful for the support of family and friends. Knowing health insurance was required to undergo a transplant and that Medicare wouldn’t cover everything, she opted to purchase the pricey COBRA insurance that is available after people leave work and do not have other insurance lined up. She’s been able to pay for it with the help of her partner’s father.
Trotter’s health stabilized enough in December 2020 that she was able to return to Medford for Christmas. But come January 2021, she experienced headaches, fevers and nausea, and she returned to OHSU. A port through which she received regular infusions had become infected. A new port and more medications improved her condition, and she went home once more in February.
Back in Medford, she eagerly got poked with a COVID-19 shot as soon as it was available. She knew her precarious health meant she didn’t stand a chance against COVID-19 without the vaccine’s protection.
In May 2021, when more people were vaccinated and COVID-19 case counts were declining, Trotter finally felt comfortable meeting a few friends. They were socially distanced and sitting outdoors at a local winery when her phone buzzed with a call from OHSU, where a heart was suddenly waiting for her. Exuberant, she and her friends briefly hugged and quickly cut their visit short. Trotter and her partner drove overnight to Portland.
Unfortunately, the big surgery didn’t immediately end her roller coaster ride. As sometimes happens after heart transplants, her kidneys began to fail and she had to go on dialysis for a time. She was later well enough to be discharged from the hospital, but had to stay in Portland for frequent follow-up tests. However, Trotter had to briefly be hospitalized again due to a bacterial infection, as the immune-suppressing drugs that prevent her body from rejecting her new heart also leave her more vulnerable to infection.
Finally, after repeated tests indicated her new heart was in good working order, Trotter and her partner were able to return to Medford in mid-August. She loves the comfort of her own home and appreciates being able to do normal, everyday things such as cooking and doing laundry with relative ease. And she’s grateful to be able to do it all alongside her partner, whom she describes as her “cheerleader who dropped everything just to help me.”
The tremendous challenges of the past year have helped Trotter, formerly a fiercely independent foster kid, understand that it’s OK to lean on others.
“We can all accept help,” she said. “The world is not always out to get you. There are people who want to help you succeed.”
While she would like to return to the working world at some point, it’s too soon to know when or if she will be up to it. In the meanwhile, she’s considering her options, including maybe volunteering or continuing her education.
“My situation is helping me figure out I can do more in life, and that I don’t have to stay in a certain box.”
Sign up to be an organ donor: https://www.donatelifenw.org/content/register-now.
Oregon Health & Science University performed Oregon’s first heart transplant in 1985. Since then, OHSU has transplanted 727 hearts and implanted 306 mechanical heart pumps, also known as ventricular assist devices. The OHSU Heart Failure and Transplant Program provides a wide variety of services that range from heart transplants to less invasive health and lifestyle interventions, and aims to provide Oregon’s heart failure patients with a high quality of life. The program’s multidisciplinary team includes six heart failure physicians, four cardiac surgeons and numerous other professionals, including advanced practice providers, social workers, physical therapists, dieticians, pharmacists, transplant coordinators and more. The program is certified by the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and health quality accreditor DNV GL Healthcare named OHSU a Cardiac Center of Excellence. More information is available on the OHSU Heart Failure and Transplant website.