Brittany Stahl of Hillsborough, New Jersey experienced a lot of stress when she felt tired and short of breath in 2019. “I thought it was probably bronchitis.” When breathing became so difficult that she had difficulty doing household chores or even lying flat, she sought urgent help about her suspected infection. But a chest x-ray and an EKG (electrocardiogram) suggested a more worrisome possibility: heart trouble.
Further testing revealed that she had cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure – related conditions in which the heart muscle cannot pump enough blood to meet the needs of the body. “I was shocked,” says Brittany.
She had an idea of what she might have in store. In 1991, her father had a heart transplant at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. He too had developed cardiomyopathy at her age. “At the time, they thought the cause was viral,” she recalls. “Today we have genetic tests that can tell you more.”
Further tests showed that the cardiomyopathy was indeed inherited. “If someone in your family needs a heart transplant and you have the genetic mutation, the chances are that you will develop a similar heart condition and that the heart will become progressively weaker,” says Dr cardiologist at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center Heart Transplant and Advanced Heart Failure Treatment Program. “If you are not monitored and treated, the heart will eventually deteriorate and you will end up in the hospital with heart failure.”
Brittany was no stranger to hospitals. At 13, she developed thyroid cancer, had surgery to remove the gland, and received radiation therapy. Later in life, she became a cardiac nurse, inspired by her father’s experience. Then when she was 33 years old, precancerous polyps were found in her colon and had to be removed.
However, while she regularly visited doctors to review her previous diagnoses, she neglected to have more general annual examinations. “I really believe in checkups,” she says. “Unfortunately, I didn’t take my own advice.” As a result, she did not examine any additional signs of problems, such as her heartbeat between 130 and 160 beats per minute, even when she lay down. “That’s a normal heart rate when you’re exercising,” says Dr. Kapoor on Newark Beth Israel. “But when it’s that fast at rest, it can indicate that the heart is very weak and needs to pump faster to supply blood to the body.”
In August 2019, Brittany had to be admitted to the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center because her heart was so weak that medication could no longer help. “I got sicker and sicker very quickly,” she says. “They suggested putting me on the heart transplant waiting list. I trusted them based on my father’s experience and never thought of going anywhere else. “
Soon, in October 2019, it became known that she had a donor. “I think everyone on the floor was crying,” says Brittany, “the staff, the nurses, even the cleaners, and the people who brought my food. They came like a family. “
Margarita Camacho, MD, surgical director of the LVAD program at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, performed the heart transplant late at night. “She was cute and amazing,” says Brittany.
Today, after surviving the heart transplant and recovery, Brittany is strongly committed to organ donation, along with health checkups and regular checkups. Based on her experience, several relatives on her father’s side have been diagnosed with familial cardiomyopathy. “It is of the utmost importance that families at risk are screened,” says Dr. Kapoor from Newark Beth Israel. “In some cases, we can treat with drugs to slow the progression before the damage becomes significant.”
“I know I should be here for my son. And if I were to save a family member by doing this, I would do it all over again. “
To learn more about the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center’s heart transplant program, which has transplanted over 1,100 hearts like Brittany’s, at https://www.rwjbh.org/nbihearttransplant