Ginger Zimmerman and her sons, Erik on the left and Jason on the right.

Ginger Zimmerman and her sons, Erik on the left and Jason on the right.

By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Ginger Zimmerman’s journey back to health is being met with many challenges.

The two-time heart transplant patient waited nearly nine months before finally getting a match, well beyond the 79-day median wait time the United Network for Organ Sharing track s for the highest priority heart transplant patients.

The delay was arduous, as her condition worsened and doctors worked to manage the pain and impact on her other organs. There were several false alarms before a donor heart matched and was transplanted Jan. 24.

While initially successful, the transplant itself brought new ordeals. Problems developed stemming from the long wait and intense surgery.

Sharp pain around her heart was a 1-inch aortic tear, called a dissection, in the place where she was connected to the heart/lung machine during surgery. A rib was also cracked during the transplant, causing pain.

Doctors discovered two blood clots in her upper right arm, which they thought was likely  caused by the catheter used to administer medication during her nine-month wait for a heart.

As they worked to solve and manage each issue, a more serious problem developed.

Her initially successful transplant was failing. A biopsy showed she was rejecting the donor heart, requiring heavy doses of medication to convince her body to accept the transplant.

“I was very fearful that I wasn’t going to survive,” Zimmerman said. “I was giving it my best, but there’s a point where you feel like you’re right on the edge.”

Further jeopardizing her recovery, Zimmerman contracted a bad respiratory virus and a secondary infection.

Now, more than two months after the surgery, she’s gaining strength, and subsequent biopsies indicate her body is accepting the heart. While the clots and aortic tear haven’t been resolved, they also aren’t getting any worse.

“I just have to get through this. I’ve been through too much and I’m too close to it being successful for it to not work,” she said.

Zimmerman, 49, received her first donor heart nearly 17 years ago following viral myopathy.

She also encountered additional health complications during that transplant that sent her back to the hospital several times in the two years afterward. She also lost her husband David, who died from an undiagnosed tear in his artery that occurred in a helicopter accident on his way to visit her in the hospital

Zimmerman, a motivational speaker from Rochester, New York, and an ardent advocate for organ donation, said that giving others life by donating his organs helped her cope with her own grief.

Zimmerman developed cardiac allograft vasculopathy, also called transplant coronary artery disease. It is a narrowing of the arteries, making it difficult for the blood to pass through.  It affects the smallest arteries first, closing off blood flow . It moved to Zimmerman’s major arteries, requiring two stents.

As she waited for a match, she continued her advocacy work for women’s heart health for the AHA. She taped a message in December for a Go Red For Women event in New York in March. She’d hoped to attend the event, and offer her message of support for the organization in person, but a virus forced her to stay home.

Zimmerman shared on social media and received an outpouring of support, something she said has been crucial in her recovery.

Ginger Zimmerman-post surgery“I’m a very spiritual and faithful person, but even a very positive person can have low days,” she said. “It has been extremely important knowing people were praying for me or sending good wishes.”

Zimmerman was released from the hospital in late February and has been living in a nearby apartment. She’ll spend at least six months there to remain close to her transplant doctors and undergo regular monitoring as she recovers.

She spends her days working with physical therapists to regain her strength, going to doctor visits and managing the dozens of medications she takes daily.

It’s an expensive endeavor and friends have launched fundraising campaigns to help pay for her medical and living expenses.

As she gains strength and stamina, Zimmerman is working to resume daily living tasks, such as taking out the garbage and doing errands.

Recently, she ventured to the grocery store to pick up some food, a trip that left her worn out, but was an important step in her recovery.

Due to her fragile condition, she has to take precautions, including wearing a mask and gloves and constantly washing hands. Even so, a trip to a nearby coffee shop can be exhilarating after nearly a year in the hospital.

“It’s been incredible to go outside,” she said. “It’s a little scary because you feel vulnerable, but it gets better every week.”

For more of Zimmerman’s story: