Two transplants give Lizeth new life

Lizeth Chavez always knew her heart was different. Because of a birth defect, she lived every day with the understanding that her heart was weak and had fewer beats compared to others.

As a young twenty-something who stayed busy with friends and family, Lizeth realized something was wrong during the summer of 2018. She had a nagging pneumonia that wouldn’t improve, and her ankles became so swollen that she couldn’t stand without pain. When her doctors checked her, it was discovered that the Ocala native’s heart was failing, and she was rushed to UF Health Heart & Vascular Hospital.

“As a 28-year-old, I was not ready for that news at all,” Lizeth said. “I went in thinking, ‘Oh, more medicines to add to my list’ and not ‘you are in heart failure. You need to get admitted.’”

The time to get a heart transplant had finally arrived, and that was startling news even for Lizeth, who had lived her whole life with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Because of the condition — in which the left side of the heart is critically underdeveloped — Lizeth constantly lived in a state of high alert. Her condition had prevented her from having a normal childhood. There were no sports or rigorous activities, but there was a lot of home school and doctor visits. Still, her experience at UF Health didn’t feel like another visit to the doctor.

“When I first went in, I was very nervous. I was scared, because I didn’t know if I was going to come out alive. I didn’t know how long I was going to wait for (the transplant). I didn’t know anything like that,” Lizeth said. “But the nurses and the staff and the doctors are amazing there, and even though it is a hospital, sometimes I forgot that it was a hospital, because they just made it seem like I was back at home.”

In fact, Lizeth’s doctors explained that making the UF Health Heart & Vascular Hospital her home was the best chance for her survival. Lizeth would be safer if she remained in the hospital while she awaited a heart for transplant, because the medical response would be immediate if her heart condition worsened. Additionally, as an inpatient, Lizeth would be prioritized to receive a heart transplant sooner.

Lizeth was on the third floor of the hospital getting food around midnight when she got the phone call she and her family had been awaiting from Juan Vilaro, MD.

“Dr. Vilaro was like, ‘Liz, you’re getting it!’ And I was like, ‘I’m getting what?’ I was so confused,” Lizeth said. “He said, ‘You’re getting your transplant in the morning.’ And I literally was like, ‘Shut up!’ I was so excited.”

Lizeth’s excitement was accompanied by anxiety when she realized that she’d undergo open heart surgery, but it would be just another stop in the 31-year-old’s lifelong journey to defy the odds.

When she was born, doctors gave her slim chances for survival of her rare and complex congenital defect, and she wouldn’t have if not for three lifesaving surgeries during her childhood, the first of which was performed when she was 3 weeks old.

“I’ve been proving people wrong my whole life,” Lizeth said.

Her battles wouldn’t end after Mark Bleiweis, MD, performed the successful heart transplant.

Two months after that, she ended up in the emergency room with liver failure and was diagnosed with sepsis. Once again, she was placed on the transplant list. Once again, UF Health was her home as she waited for a new liver.

“It was more scary than the heart transplant, because I was literally dying,” Lizeth said. “They transferred me to my old unit, where I knew all my nurses, and they just made me feel comfortable as they had done in the past.”

With the second transplant, UF Health gave Lizeth yet another lifeline to the things she loves most, which include shopping, cooking and reading murder mysteries. Another is her fiancé, who she’s been with for almost 10 years, and the Tampa Bay Rays baseball games he got her hooked on.

“I want to get married. I want to have kids. And I know all of that is possible thanks to UF Health,” Lizeth said. “I’m engaged, I’m in love and I have a new heart.”

By Talal Elmasry