But now her heart, which was transplanted 16 years ago, is running out of time.
Ginger has been diagnosed with a new heart problem and is now on the national waiting list for another heart transplant.
“I knew one day I would face the fact that transplantation isn’t a cure, but you want to think you can keep doing everything possible to continue on,” said Ginger, a longtime volunteer for the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women movement.
Ginger, who lives in Rochester, N.Y., was hospitalized April 27 after being diagnosed with cardiac allograft vasculopathy.
The disease – also called transplant coronary artery disease – causes a narrowing of the arteries, making it more difficult for blood to pass through. It affects the smallest arteries first, closing off blood flow, but has already moved her major arteries, requiring two stents.
Ginger, 49, is one of nearly 3,000 people waiting for a heart transplant in the United States. An average of 18 people die each day waiting for transplants due to a national shortage of donated organs.
But Ginger is fortunate the condition was found at all; usually, doctors told her, it’s revealed only after a sudden cardiac death.
Before that procedure, she had spent four years going to doctors with suspicions something was wrong before they discovered a virus had irreparably damaged her heart, leaving it to function on less than 15 percent of normal capacity.
She was 32 at the time and the mother of three young boys. It took four months on the transplant waiting list that time.
The transplant was successful, but Ginger then suffered another shattering blow.
Her husband, David, was traveling to the hospital to see her when the helicopter he was in crashed. He made it to the hospital, but he was so focused on Ginger and the boys that he didn’t get himself checked out. It turned out, he had suffered a small artery tear in his head during the wreck. Nine days after Ginger’s transplant, David died.
Since then, Ginger has been sharing her story as a motivational speaker. She advocates for organ donation – in addition to her own story as a recipient, her husband’s organs helped others after his death. And she urges audiences to listen to their bodies, advocate for their own health and keep their hearts fit.
But even Ginger found herself putting her own symptoms on the back burner as she negotiated a busy work and travel schedule.
She had been experiencing troubling symptoms for almost a year, including breathlessness, fatigue and tightness in her chest. She’d checked with her doctors on several occasions, and had even been hospitalized once, but subsequent testing didn’t reveal a cause. Doctors told her everything looked fine.
In February, Ginger was rushing through Chicago’s Midway Airport when she began to experience new symptoms. She was profusely sweating and getting dizzy, and felt pain her jaw and collarbone that was more intense on her left side.
“It was classic heart attack symptoms, but I thought I just needed to rest so I moved to the moving sidewalk and put my luggage down,” she said.
Then she collapsed. Even as paramedics worked to assess her, Ginger was more focused on rebooking the next flight.
“The irony is I had just spoken at an event where I told women not to do that,” she said.
More testing revealed Ginger’s cardiac allograft vasculopathy, a common cause of death for transplant patients. She learned that the condition can be aggressive, causing death within three to six months. Although she felt some relief there was finally a diagnosis for her symptoms, it was still tough news to hear.
“My heart just sank,” she said.
Other hearts sank as well.
“Ginger has always shined brightly as a force to help people—particularly women—learn their risk and take simple positive steps toward leading healthier lives,” said Michael Weamer, executive vice president of the Founders Affiliate of the American Heart Association, who led the way in his affiliate with well wishes to Ginger.
“Ginger is among those touched by heart disease in very dramatic and life-threatening ways more than once in a lifetime,” Weamer said. “She reminds us of how crucial it is that we continue to raise the funds that let us prevent cardiovascular diseases and stroke from occurring in the first place, and meet folks where they are on the road to better health after heart and stroke events.”
Even from the hospital, Ginger continues to share her story, posting messages on Facebook and Twitter about her condition and the importance of heart health and organ donation.
“It’s so important to me,” she said. “I can’t be out there speaking at events, but I can still share my message that people should know the symptoms for heart health and speak up.”