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A Heartfelt Prayer Answered

Shay’s Heart Replacement Blessing

Ask Shelecta “Shay” Weldy how she feels today, and without hesitation she will say, “Awesome!” The 38-year-old mother of two received a new heart through Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute a year and a half ago, more than a decade after she was diagnosed with heart failure.

Ten years ago, Shay remembers what drove her to her local emergency department in her hometown in central Illinois. “I was dizzy and short of breath, my ankles were swollen, and I could barely walk,” she recalls. Her heart was pumping at only 10 to 15 percent of its capacity, and her physician sent her to Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago to be evaluated. While undergoing an angiogram there, Shay had a heart attack on the table. She was sent home with medications and an implanted defibrillator that would help regulate her heartbeat. “Things were up and down for years after that,” she says.

When she became pregnant with her second child two years later, Shay was told she had a 30 to 40 percent chance of not surviving her pregnancy because of her weak heart. She made it to 35 weeks before having a C-section.

Six years later, back in her hometown, Shay’s physician told her that her heart had become so enlarged the valves could no longer close, and heart valve surgery would not fix the problem.

“He said, ‘We’re going to send you back to Northwestern. You’re a candidate for a heart transplant now,’” she says.

“When Shay was referred to me, her heart was hanging on by a thread,” recalls Jonathan Rich, MD, Shay’s cardiologist at Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “She didn’t really have time to wait for a transplant. But you can’t go search on Amazon and just order a new heart.”

To alleviate Shay’s heart failure in the short term while she awaited a donor heart, the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute team implanted a battery-operated, mechanical heart pump called a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), which helps pump blood from the heart to the rest of the body. “I called myself the bionic woman,” Shay jokes.

A Child’s Request

Shay says the LVAD was a blessing — and a foreshadowing of the greater blessing she had been waiting for. Four months after being put on the first-priority transplant list, she received a call from Northwestern, letting her know there was a heart that was a perfect fit for her.

Post-transplantation, Shay gained 150 pounds in water that forced her to go on kidney dialysis and stayed in the Intensive Care Unit for a month and half. Shay steadily regained her health and went on to cardiac rehabilitation for another month at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. “I had nothing but fight in me,” she says. “And the hospital staff made one of the worst times in my life one of the best. They took care of me when I couldn’t do for myself.”

Shay has particular praise for Dr. Rich, who she says is “not only a doctor, he’s a friend. I knew he had a plan to get me through any bad news he had.”

A Circle of Gratitude

Dr. Rich still clearly remembers how happy he was to give Shay the good news of a donor match almost a year to the day after he first met her. “Young as she is, she’s got a real chance to have the happy life that she deserves,” he says. “She’s very grateful and thankful, but we are equally grateful to have the privilege of caring for her. When you’re able to get a patient to and through a heart transplant and see them doing so well on the other side, it’s incredibly rewarding.”

“My goal was to be home in time for my son’s senior night for football,” Shay says. “That gave me the drive and determination to make it home.” She returned to Peoria 11 days before her son’s special night, and she walked with him onto the football field amid cheers for “Mama Weldy.”

Shay still goes back to Northwestern Memorial Hospital to give advice and encouragement to those waiting for transplants. “Others came and talked to me while I was waiting,” she says. “It’s a breath of fresh air to see survivors. So I go up and talk to people, and I tell them, ‘Don’t give up your fight, and don’t give up your faith.’”

Shay is living proof of the power of both.

Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute