Women form lasting bond over shared heart transplant journeys

Heart transplant patients Holly and Stephanie bond over their life-changing journeys and recovery from heart failure

At age 30, Stephanie Deeley was diagnosed with familial cardiomyopathy — the same diagnosis that abruptly took the life of her father when he was just 31.

Stephanie received a pacemaker and implanted defibrillator, and lived a full life until five years ago, when she began being shocked repeatedly by her defibrillator.

“This is a sign that the heart is trying to die,” said Kelly C. McCants, M.D., executive medical director of Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Advanced Heart Failure & Recovery Program and executive director, Institute for Health Equity, a Part of Norton Healthcare.

At that point, Stephanie was referred to the UK HealthCare Heart Transplant Program. As a UK HealthCare affiliate network member, Norton Healthcare works closely with UK to provide patients access to transplant care. In 2019, she received a heart transplant and has returned to living life to its fullest.

Two journeys converge

Fast-forward to 2023, when 38-year-old Holly Cole came to Norton Heart & Vascular Institute after moving from Michigan to Louisville. Just like Stephanie, Holly had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, but as an infant. And just like Stephanie, the same diagnosis took Holly’s father’s life years ago.

During Holly’s visit with Dr. McCants, she learned it was time to make the referral to UK HealthCare to put her on the heart transplant list.

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“It was an extremely emotional clinic visit,” said Susan Spayd, R.N., clinical manager of the Advanced Heart Failure & Recovery Program, who knew Stephanie’s story. “Holly broke down crying when she heard this news.”

Susan was struck by the similarities in the two women’s stories and asked Holly if she could introduce her to Stephanie.

The two connected by phone, then agreed to meet for dinner. Shortly after, Stephanie introduced Holly to another friend, who would also play a key role in walking with Holly along her transplant journey. The three developed a fast friendship and made plans to help with whatever was needed before and after Holly’s transplant.

The blessing came in August 2023. Holly called her friends to tell them to “get to Lexington ASAP. A donor heart is available!” Holly’s friends and support system immediately hopped in their cars to make the trip.

Holly is now on her way to a long and full life thanks to the generous gift she received and the support of her new friends.

“I’m loving getting out and walking my dog,” she said.

What started as an ask for emotional support from one experienced person to another has blossomed into a deeper friendship. An unexpected blessing was the added appreciation Stephanie gained from making the connection.

“It was so eye-opening to be on the other side. It really helped me understand what my family and friends went through during all the stages of my own transplant journey,” she said.

Wherever their journeys take them, Stephanie and Holly are committed to being there for one another. They agree a strong heart is a powerful and lifechanging gift — but so is a strong friendship.

“You can’t do this on your own,” Holly said. “I’m glad to have this friendship and close bond with Stephanie.”

Working together for healthier hearts

UK HealthCare in Lexington, Kentucky, and Norton Heart & Vascular Institute began a collaboration in 2021 to expand complex heart care, including heart transplant services, to Kentuckians. UK HealthCare Transplant & Specialty Clinic, located on the campus of Norton Audubon Hospital, allows cardiologists from UK and Norton Healthcare to evaluate patients for heart transplants and ventricular assist device care.

Treatments for advanced heart failure are expanding rapidly. The Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Advanced Heart Failure & Recovery Program offers sophisticated treatments and a new way to look at the management of heart failure.

Be a part of the gift of life

According to the American Heart Association, at any given time up to 3,000 people nationwide are waiting for the lifesaving gift of a heart. Their waits range from days to months to years. You can help by:

Registering as an organ donor at your local motor vehicle department

Signing up through your state’s online registry at OrganDonor.gov

Letting your family know of your wish to be an organ donor

Making a gift to Norton Heart & Vascular Institute at NortonHealthcareFoundation.com

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