Woman's story of a new heart has happy ending

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When cardiologist Michael Mathier placed Patty Dippold on the transplant list on Dec. 23, 2007, she told everybody she was going to get a new heart for Valentine's Day.

Close enough.

At 10 p.m., Feb. 15, 2008, Mrs. Dippold, of Vandergrift, was wheeled into one of the operating rooms at UPMC Presbyterian, where cardiothoracic surgeon Christian Bermudez was waiting for her. The following day, she was wheeled out with a new heart from a 41-year-old man.

The Valentine's Day gift turned her life around after more than 20 years of living with steadily progressing heart disease and numerous cardiac procedures. "I feel wonderful," Mrs. Dippold said.

Now 54, she looks it too.

"She's doing well. Subsequent studies have shown the heart has completely recovered with normal function and with a normal life," said Dr. Bermudez, associate director of heart and lung transplantation of the UPMC Heart, Lung and Esophageal Surgery Institute.

"You wouldn't know there was ever anything wrong. She looks fit ... She looks great. She acts that way too, which is nice," said Dr. Mathier.

The transplant was a fitting Valentine's gift: Mrs. Dippold has been a registered organ donor since 1988, and she donated skin, corneas and long bones from her first husband when he died unexpectedly of a blood clot in his lung in 1991.

But she doesn't look at it that way.

"I feel blessed, lucky to be here," said Mrs. Dippold.

At the time of her transplant, her enlarged and weakened heart was working at 7 percent capacity. Doctors believed it was the end result of a viral infection that had settled in her heart decades earlier. The heart disease was diagnosed in 1985, when physicians warned her she might someday need a transplant.

"Everything that happened after was a long-term progression of that heart weakness," said Dr. Mathier, who is director of the pulmonary hypertension program at the UPMC Cardiovascular Institute.

"That's how many years? In the old days she might have lived maybe two or three years -- I'm talking about back in the '40s, '50s, '60s. On the one hand she had great success on medicine alone, but on the other hand, we had a [then] 52-year-old woman who by 2007 was not far from dying if we couldn't do anything for her.

"That's the beauty of transplants."

Mrs. Dippold said a combination of "a lot of medicine," a limited change in lifestyle -- plus a defense mechanism -- kept her going in the beginning.

"[The doctors] all told me to slow down, but I had small children and a job, and it was much easier said than done," she said of her efforts raising two boys and working at a PNC branch in Lower Burrell.

"I don't think I realized this [transplant] would ever be an option. I was only 27, 28," she said.

Still, she and her first husband, Ray Rogowicz, became very aware of the importance of organ transplants and signed up as donors. His fatal blood clot prevented her from donating organs such as the heart, liver or kidneys, but she readily agreed to donating the skin and long bones.

However, when the man calling from CORE, the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, asked that she donate his corneas she hesitated.

"I got upset because he had the most beautiful blue eyes, one of the things I first fell in love with," Mrs. Dippold said. Then she realized it was the right thing to do "if there's someone who can see the world through his eyes."

Eventually she heard from the man who got her husband's corneas. "He got to see his grandchildren for the very first time."

The years went by and, after a long courtship, she married Robert Dippold in 1999. "He had two boys and I had two boys. He had some heart problems; I had some heart problems. We had a lot in common," Mrs. Dippold said.

But her heart condition got worse with the coming of the 21st century.

"I really started having problems in 2002," she said. "I had some valve leakage, fatigue. My mitral valve wasn't closing all the way."

Her cardiologist, Jerome Itzkoff, sent her to a surgeon who did open heart surgery to repair the valve in 2003.

In 2004 the surgeon implanted through a shoulder incision a pacemaker and defibrillator, which respectively stimulates the heart and restores rhythm to an irregular heartbeat.

Asked if it helped, Mrs. Dippold said, "a little bit but not too much. ... That's when I quit working."

Things went "pretty well" for about three years.

"Then in November of 2007 I got so sick I could not get out of bed," she said. "I had no energy, no strength. That was on Thanksgiving Day. I called Dr. Itzkoff."

The following Monday Mrs. Dippold underwent a catheterization, a procedure in which a small catheter, or tube, is injected to better examine the heart. It is a procedure she has undergone "dozens" of times over the years.

After this one, Dr. Itzkoff came in to visit her and it was obvious he had bad news. "He was white as a sheet and said, 'There's nothing else I can do. I want you to see the transplant doctors.' "

She saw Dr. Mathier on Dec. 7, 2007, and he put her on the transplant list 16 days later.

"She was sick enough from the get-go," he said.

She also was what Dr. Mathier called the "perfect candidate."

"Aside from her heart, essentially nothing else was wrong with her," he said. "She had no kidney disease; she had no liver disease, no lung disease, and she was a clean liver. She didn't smoke. She didn't drink."

But she was very sick.

"She was very limited," Dr. Mathier said. "She could walk across a room in the house, and she could get to my office, but then she looked exhausted. ...

"Shortly after I saw her they had to readmit her cause her heart pressure was too high and the blood flow too low." She was prescribed for intravenous medicine to bring both into line and sent home with a mini-pump to infuse it.

"Once she was on the [IV] medicine there was some improvement. It was not a miracle, but a little better."

Mrs. Dippold was listed at 1B status, the middle of three levels of transplant need.

Because she was so sick, she was hospitalized at Presby in late January. She was still there and waiting for yet another catheterization when she learned a heart had been found for her. While she waited for surgery, she and her husband called everyone who had heard her prediction she'd receive a Valentine's Day heart.

"The surgery went uneventfully," Dr. Bermudez said.

The day after, though, she developed complications in her right ventricle and required advanced support with a machine that assists the vital function of the heart called ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.

"[Mrs. Dippold] fortunately recovered after two to three days of support," Dr. Bermudez said.

She went home at the end of March.

"She really proved her mettle. She was tough from the beginning," Dr. Mathier said.

And now, along with being a registered donor, she volunteers both for CORE and Transplant Recipients International Organization. "[TRIO members] are the people who go to transplant games," Mrs. Dippold said. "I'm not athletic so I just signed up to be on the financial committee. [For CORE] I speak to nursing students, new employees of CORE, stuff envelopes -- whatever they want me to do, I do."

On Friday and Saturday, she will be on stage interacting with the dancers as Bodiography Contemporary Ballet presents "Heart (Function vs. Emotion)," a world premier at the Byham Theater, Downtown, inspired by patients with advanced heart disease or pulmonary hypertension.

They are all ways of giving back.

"I'm so fortunate," Mrs. Dippold said. "I've had so many opportunities since I got my heart. It's changed my life. It's changed my family's life."

For tickets to the "Heart" performance, go to http://pgharts.org.

Pohla Smith: psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228. First Published February 17, 2010 5:00 AM


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