4 transplants form bond at Children's
It was a typical school day when Cindy Roche got the call early last month. She needed to pull her son, Sean, out of class and rush him to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
His new heart would meet him there.
Sean, 17, of Upper St. Clair, had been waiting since October for a new heart. Doctors at Children's Hospital -- who usually perform one or two heart transplants each month -- hadn't done one since December. No suitable hearts were available.
But Sean's transplant May 3 started the busiest week ever for Children's cardiac surgeons. When it ended, four children had new hearts, another chance at life and a bond they say will last forever.
"You never really think about not getting it done, to be honest with you," said Dr. Peter Wearden, who performed the surgeries with Dr. Victor Morell. "Doing that many heart transplants in a row can make for a very busy time, but it's a good feeling and really a team effort."
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently sat down with the four children as they were reunited at Children's almost a month after the surgeries, which increased the number of transplants this year for their age group by almost 25 percent, from 13 nationwide to 17.
A popular kid, Sean loves sports -- playing, watching, dreaming about sports.
His favorite teams: "Pirates, Pens, Steelers."
Last year, the Upper St. Clair High School senior looked forward to winter weekends on the ski slopes at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Somerset County with his mother, his father, Kevin, who owns a cleaning business, and brother, Tommy, 21.
But the tall, dark-haired teen had been feeling tired and short of breath. At first, doctors thought he had asthma or pneumonia. In October he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy -- a condition in which the heart muscles become too thick, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood.
"I've never been sick a day in my life, so this was quite shocking," Sean said.
Doctors implanted a pacemaker to help his heart beat. They also put him on a waiting list for a transplant.
Sean went to school but couldn't walk up and down stairs, let alone participate in any sports. He became increasingly tired, and his lips turned a purplish hue from lack of blood.
"The school rallied around him," said Cindy Roche, a vice president at Family Hospice and Palliative Care. To help pay for medical expenses that insurance doesn't cover, teachers, students and the community raised $136,000, a school fundraising record.
"At 17 years old, it's all about them and their friends," she said. "This year, they learned about giving back."
When Cindy Roche picked her son up at school for his transplant, she took four of his friends to the hospital. They insisted on staying by his side.
"At first, it was a little difficult to try and keep up with my friends," said Sean, who plans to attend either Robert Morris University or West Virginia University, to study pharmacology. "But they adjusted to me. And they've been unbelievably great."
For almost three years, Butch and Colleen Grimm knew their daughter, Brittany, would need a heart transplant. A chest X-ray during a bout with pneumonia revealed an enlarged aorta. But the strawberry blonde had no symptoms to indicate the gravity of her situation.
Then, in April, Brittany, 11, suddenly fainted.
Her parents rushed her to an emergency room in Erie, about 15 minutes from their home in Fairview, on the shores of Lake Erie.
"They were having trouble controlling her heartbeat," said Butch Grimm, who owns a plastics company. "It would race to 140 (beats per minute) and then drop to 50."
Doctors decided Brittany needed a higher level of care and sent her to Children's.
Brittany was admitted April 14 and given medicine to control her heartbeat. Her name moved to the top of the national heart transplant waiting list. Her mother, Colleen, stayed by her side; her father and brother, Harrison, 13, visited several times a week.
On May 4 -- the day after Sean Roche got his heart -- Brittany went into surgery.
"You'd never know she even had an operation," Butch Grimm said. "She is doing so well."
Brittany plans to become an illustrator for Disney some day. A quiet girl -- with several outfits and accessories in her favorite colors of pink and green -- she looks forward to a summer of swimming.
Asked what she missed most during her two-month hospital stay, Brittany paused for a moment. Her dad suggested maybe she missed her family most.
"Yeah," she said, rolling her eyes and grinning mischievously. "I don't know, probably seeing my friends."
It took a regionwide search to get John Paul May his heart.
The energetic boy named for the late Pope John Paul II was at a Slippery Rock University jazz festival with his mother, Sue, when an "outstanding match" became available.
Born with a congenital heart defect, John Paul underwent a transplant as an infant. But that heart became clogged, which is common in heart transplants. At age 10, he needed another.
When doctors couldn't reach the boy and his mother by cell phone or at their home in Harrisville, Butler County, police deemed it a life-or-death emergency. They asked Sprint to "ping" Sue May's cell phone to determine their whereabouts.
"A police officer walked up to the stage, and when the conductor stopped the music I thought, 'Wow, this must be important,' " Sue May said.
The officer explained the situation to the audience. When John Paul and his mother stood up, the crowd applauded as the Mays were escorted to an ambulance.
"When I found out all they did, I felt so bad," Sue May said. "I caused all this trouble, but the police said, 'No, no, we're so glad we found you. This is our job.' "
At 1:30 a.m. on May 6, doctors opened John Paul's chest and implanted his heart in about four hours.
His father, Phillip, was driving across Ohio on his way home from a part-time job as director of religious education at a vacation home in Wimamac, Ind. He stopped only briefly at a church to pray for the anonymous family who had lost a child and donated John Paul's new heart.
"We just thank everybody who has been praying, and the donor family," he said. "John Paul's bounced back extremely well from this, and we're really grateful, not just to the police, but the good folks at Children's."
The freckled John Paul, who is home-schooled, doesn't really understand the excitement surrounding his transplant.
"My mom just forgot to turn her phone on," he said. "But it was neat when everybody clapped for me."
Tiaershea "Tete" Cornelius, of Buffalo, tells friends she had a heart that was just too big.
The high school freshman had a congenital heart defect that made part of her heart work harder, causing it to enlarge. Keeping the bubbly girl going proved to be too much. Her heart failed at the beginning of the school year.
"Sometimes during cheerleading or on the drill team, I'd get chest pain and stuff," said Tete, 14.
Doctors told her mother, Tanya, a nurse, and father, Willie, a bus driver, she would need a heart transplant soon.
"My mom, she started crying -- and me, too," Tete said. "I knew something was wrong."
She was admitted April 20 to Children's to keep her close to doctors and machines to monitor her heart. She quickly became friends with Brittany, who was admitted less than a week earlier.
"Seeing Brittany get her heart, it gave Tete hope," Tanya Cornelius said.
On May 11, Tete's early morning surgery capped the marathon week of heart transplants.
Someday, Tete plans to become a midwife. But for now, she's excited to have the energy to resume cheerleading with her friends -- and a chance to be pampered.
"I'm going to have a nice spa. I never had one of those."
Tanya Cornelius smiled at her optimistic daughter and confirmed that manicures and massages are in her future.
"Yes," she said. "Tete can go to the spa."
Reflecting on the busy week, Morell, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Children's, said he'd do it again without question.
"What can I tell you?" he said. "Honestly, it's what we do."