One day in July, 2001, Sarah McPharlin went to a public pool with her family. Sarah developed a bad headache, and suddenly found herself underwater. Her mother pulled her to the surface, and police rushed the unconscious girl to a local hospital. When Sarah’s heart rate plunged, she was immediately transferred to DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Doctors there quickly found a problem with the electrical system of her heart, and installed a pacemaker.
Her parents were somewhat relieved, thinking the problems were under control. But a week later, Sarah’s heart began to fail again, and she was diagnosed with Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart’s large muscle. They thought it was likely caused by a virus, and Sarah went back to the hospital. Doctors gave her parents the odds: one third of patients will get medication and go back to a normal life. One third will get medication and have a limited life. And one third will need a heart transplant to recover. Sarah was one of those who would need a new heart.
DMC Pediatric heart surgeon Hal Walters explains what happened next. “It got to the point where she wasn’t able to maintain her own blood pressure adequately, and we were forced to put her on something called ECMO support, which is extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.” ECMO is basically an external mechanical heart, connecting Sarah by tubes to a machine requiring a ventilator for breathing and heavy sedation.
While waiting for a suitable donor heart, Doctors performed major surgery to attach a smaller, more mobile device to Sarah’s heart, allowing her brief periods of movement. After two months, the call came: a donor heart had been found for Sarah.
A corporate jet provided by her father Jim’s employer, Chrysler, flew to Atlanta, and within hours that precious donor heart was waiting at DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan.
The family had a very long wait during the 15 hour surgery, but the operation was a great success. Now, Sarah was on a battery of immune suppression drugs to keep her body from rejecting her new heart, when a new crisis struck: She was allergic to one of the medications. She was comatose for weeks, while everyone waited anxiously for her return. She did awake, and then had to undergo major rehabilitation to relearn basics, like swallowing, walking and talking. Finally after six months in the hospital, it was time to go home.
The hospital halls were lined with well-wishers. But now, there was a great burden to be managed at home: Sarah was taking 30 different medications, finely balanced to suppress her immune system to keep the new heart safe, but effective enough to fight off infection.
Over the next four years, Sarah made an amazing adjustment. She quickly caught up to her friends in the seventh grade, and moved on to high school, doing well in class and sports. But the allergic reaction from years before had given her epilepsy, requiring brain surgery to remove the damaged portion of her brain.
But Sarah was not defeated. She has now moved on to college at Michigan State University, where she had some health setbacks, even requiring another surgery to repair a failing heart valve. But nothing seems to stop Sarah.
This summer, she was fine-tuning her tennis game for the National Transplant Games, where she took a gold medal for Tennis and for basketball. Not surprisingly, Sarah wants to be a nurse. “I know hoe much time they spend with you and they make a huge impact on your life, and I really respect them.”