South Dakota woman donates her old heart to her alma mater

October 30, 2017

ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — Anyone can give from the heart, but Katie Tuff had the rare chance to give her heart.

After a heart transplant in April, Tuff donated her old heart to Presentation College.

“I wanted to donate my heart because I always try to find something good out of the bad things that happen,” she told the Aberdeen American News . “I thought, well, why waste this?”

Wearing a shirt designed by her cousin that read “recycled parts inside” and purple medical gloves, Tuff held her own heart for the first time. There will eventually be a plaque in the anatomy lab to let people know about her unique donation.

“Katie contacted me — I believe the day after you found out you were officially having the transplant — and said, ‘I want to give you my heart,’” said Trisha Waldman, associate dean of the health and natural sciences division at Presentation. “She went through our cadaver lab and she knows the experience of the cadaver lab and wanted that opportunity to give back to our students.”

Tuff, 30, graduated from Presentation in 2009 with her nursing degree and had been working in the Brain and Spine Institute at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, where she still lives. She grew up in Watertown.

The heart was wrapped up and rubber-banded in a jar of preservative, and had been with the Tuff family since it was removed. It had been sliced and some pieces could be seen separate from the whole.

Tuff and Waldman donned gloves, and Waldman dove into the jar, carefully unwrapping the organ before handing it to Tuff, who smiled and posed for pictures.

Tuff found out she needed a heart transplant earlier this year and, eight days later, she was heading to the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis. The transplant was April 30.

The number eight was recurrent throughout Tuff’s transplant process, her dad, Don Tuff, said. The heart was numbered 888, and Katie Tuff got home from the hospital on Aug. 8 — the eighth day of the eighth month of a year in which the digits add up to eight.

Don and Mary Tuff were by their daughter’s side throughout the transplant process.

“We didn’t even have time for it to sink in,” Mary Tuff said.

Katie Tuff was working a night shift when she found out she would be getting her transplant.

“They called and they said you need to get on the plane and come to U of M to get a heart,” Tuff said. “Usually people have to wait months and months.”

When she was 6, Tuff said she was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. Her heart issues, which date back to 2009, were a result of chemotherapy and radiation treatments she had fighting cancer as a child.

“That damaged my heart at that time, and as I was growing it just kept damaging it, kind of,” Tuff said. “In 2009, I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. I went on some meds and those were working good.”

But eventually, the medication stopped working, which is when Tuff found out she needed a new heart.

“And then things started going downhill. I started having a hard time going up stairs and things like that, so I went to the University of Minnesota for a second opinion and they told me I needed a heart transplant,” Tuff said.

Tuff was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy. It is the rarest form of cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the walls of the lower chambers of the heart are abnormally rigid and lack the flexibility to expand as the ventricles fill with blood, according to information from the Cleveland Clinic.

It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing since the transplant, Tuff said.

“I was actually in the hospital for about three months,” Tuff said. “With all sorts of things, (gastrointestinal) bleeds, blood clots, chicken pox.”

Tuff is a petite woman, and she said she lost about 20 pounds after her transplant.

“I’m pretty much down to therapy and working on weight gain,” she said. “I really didn’t have 20 pounds to lose.”

Slowly but surely, she’s getting better. Eventually, she thinks she’ll be on fewer medications than she was pre-transplant, including her anti-rejection meds.

Her doctors thought she would be back at work about a year after the transplant, but Tuff said she might want to make her return a little sooner.

“I’m going to try to go back before a year,” she said. “They might have me do half-shifts at first.”

In order to get the old heart out, all of the nerves had to be severed, she said. Her new heart always beats at about 110 beats per minute.

Tuff said she doesn’t know much about the donor and doesn’t want to learn more until she’s stronger.

At Presentation, her old heart will be kept separate from some other specimens in the lab, but it will still be used to teach students.


Information from: Aberdeen American News, http://www.aberdeennews.com

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