Saved by the Beat of Her Heart

As a 17-year-old, Salina Gonzales successfully fought Hodgkin's lymphoma with chemotherapy, and at the time doctors said she'd go on to live a normal life.

She did for more than a decade until, at age 28, the schoolteacher and mother felt a sudden change.

"I woke up and I felt like I couldn't breathe, and it just got worse," she said. "I couldn't walk maybe two or three steps without feeling like I had to gasp for air."

It turned out that one of the drugs doctors gave her as part of her cancer treatment had weakened her heart.

Gonzales' heart had swollen to the size of a coconut and could barely pump blood through her body. Doctors told her she might only have 30 days to live.

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"I just heard the words congestive heart failure — I thought of my child, I wanted him to grow up with a mother," Gonzales said. "I had to stay alive for him. I had to just somehow be alive for him."

Gonzales wanted to live to see her son Scott grow up, but she was in desperate need of a new heart. Even if she received a heart transplant in time— which was unlikely because of the short notice – the transplant survival rate typically is only 10 years.

"When Salina was looking at her son Scottie, who was at the time 15 months old, and thinking of just 10 years with him, it just wasn't enough," said Dr. Roberta Bogaev, Gonzales' cardiologist at the Texas Heart Institute.

So Gonzales opted for an experimental therapy in which a newly redesigned left ventricular assist device (LVAD) would help the heart to pump blood.

The new device, which is just a third of the size of earlier assist devices, was designed to fit smaller frames, like those of women and teens. Doctors implanted it just below the heart, and it was powered by an external battery carried like a backpack.

"The pump takes over the work of the heart and by resting the heart the heart muscle actually improves," said Gonzales' heart surgeon, Dr. Bud Frazier.

Gonzales' recovery was difficult.

"I felt so sick before and then after the surgery," Gonzales said.

But after just three months, Gonzales felt like her old self and even was teaching her first-grade students, exercising and spending time with her son.

"I just felt normal. There was nothing wrong with me. I didn't feel any pain. I can walk really fast. I can sprint after my son in order to catch him. I can do anything again," she said.

In fact, she did so well that after eight months, her heart showed so much improvement that doctors at the Texas Heart Institute decided to remove the LVAD from her body.

"When they took out the device I just felt free, literally the weight was just lifted off my shoulders … and [I] just feel liberated," Gonzales said.

Now Gonzales, who was able to go home to San Antonio on Monday, is looking ahead and ready to continue on life's journey.

"I feel like it is just this gift. I feel this gift that has been given to me of a new heart a new life and I am ready to just take everything on," she said.

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