Cherie Aimée had been having trouble breathing for weeks. “But no one could figure out what was wrong with me,” she says.
“I’d wake up in the middle of the night and feel like I couldn’t breathe,” she says. “Other times, I’d start hyperventilating until I collapsed.”
The 35-year-old cancer survivor had already made one trip to a local emergency room in the spring of 2010. Her husband, Doug, rushed her there a second time that spring, when she started complaining her “arms felt heavy.”
As it turned out, her heart was failing. Within 10 minutes of arriving at a hospital near their home in Connecticut, Cherie went into cardiac arrest, with a flatline on the monitor that wouldn’t budge.
When Cherie’s heart failed to restart, her care team continued CPR while a cardiologist began a temporary life-support treatment called ECMO. By means of catheters, Cherie was connected to equipment that drained her blood, circulated, and oxygenated it outside her body, then re-infused it into her vascular system.
Cherie’s doctor then reached out to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, which sent members of the cardiac surgery department by ambulance to Connecticut and returned with Cherie in their care.
At NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, Cherie underwent surgery to take her off ECMO and put her on a more durable cardiac support system.
But that wasn’t the only problem Cherie was facing. During CPR, several of Cherie’s ribs were broken and she was bleeding into her lung, forcing her to keep relying on the machine for oxygenation as well.
“She was unconscious, and she developed multiple complications,” recalls Dr. Yoshifumi Naka, director of the Cardiac Transplantation Program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, who, with Dr. Hiroo Takayama, director of the Aortic Surgery Program, treated Cherie. “She almost died a million times.”
Cherie remained on life support at the hospital and was put into a medically induced coma for several weeks.
“I was scared but soon realized that I could rely on the emotional support of the entire staff. They all played a role in my recovery.”
When Cherie’s family feared the worst, her doctors’ confidence helped them have faith. “My family would not have gotten through it without the assurance Dr. Naka and Dr. Takayama gave them,” she says. “Every day, Dr. Takayama said, ‘She’s young. She’s going to be fine.’”
“When my condition finally improved, the doctors allowed me to wake up,” she says. “I was scared but soon realized that I could rely on the emotional support of the entire staff. When I talk about staff, I don’t just mean the surgeons, the medical doctors, the nurses, the physician assistants. I mean right down to the people who cleaned the rooms, who washed the floors, who emptied the trash every day. They all played a role in my recovery.”
Not Her First Battle
Before she was hospitalized for heart failure and cardiac arrest, Cherie had been diagnosed with a type of cancer called Hodgkin lymphoma in 2008. At the time of her cardiac arrest, her cancer was in remission, but the medications she had taken to treat it, including Adriamycin, a common chemotherapy drug also used for breast cancer patients, can progressively weaken the heart and cause heart failure. Though Cherie had a history of arrhythmia, or an abnormal or irregular heartbeat, her doctor had taken her off her anti-arrhythmia drug during the chemotherapy. At that time, “the priority was becoming cancer-free,” explains Cherie, who had been in remission for eight months at the time. “Managing my heart rate got lost in the shuffle.”
After weeks of support from the heart pump, attempts were made to remove it, but they were unsuccessful. Cherie’s heart had permanent damage from the chemotherapy.
“Cherie was not heart-transplant eligible at that time because her history of cancer was too recent to give any certainty of cure,” recalls Dr. Paolo Colombo, director of the Center for Advanced Cardiac Care (Heart Failure, Cardiac Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support) at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. “So the decision was made to transition her to a more durable heart pump that would allow her to go home — a left ventricular assist device [LVAD].”
An LVAD is a heart pump that has several components: a pump that is implanted next to the heart and works in parallel with the heart to deliver blood into the big artery, aorta, which eventually distributes blood to the rest of the body. The second component is a cable that connects the pump to a small computerized controller, which is outside the body, attached to a belt, and powered by two external batteries that last up to 12 hours each.
“The best way I can describe the LVAD is that you walk around every day as if you’re carrying a baby,” says Cherie. “You can’t drop it, kink the wire, or twist the wire.”
A Long Wait
After receiving the LVAD, Cherie had to wait several years to be sure that her cancer was unlikely to come back. She was then put on the heart transplant waiting list.
At the time that her cardiac arrest occurred in 2010, Cherie was running her own digital tech marketing firm with a staff of 20 that offered website development and digital marketing services.
“When I got home from the hospital all my muscles had atrophied, so I was in a wheelchair,” says Cherie. “I had also just recovered from cancer, so there was no way I could continue my tech firm.” She shut down her business and lost touch with many of her friends. “It was the ultimate devastation,” she says.
“From the first day I came in, dead on arrival, myself and my family have never seen such exceptional nursing care.”
Facing a loss of income, Cherie and her husband, who was injured in an accident in 2011 and had to file for disability insurance, lived off their savings and the insurance, which quickly started to run out.
These changes affected Cherie’s emotional state. Though she was grateful for the LVAD — “I would not be alive today without the LVAD; my heart was not strong enough to continue on its own” — she also struggled with the reality that she had to be connected to a machine to live.
“Nobody understands what it’s like to be kept alive by a machine,” she says. “When you’re at home, and no longer surrounded by the hospital staff, there is a constant level of fear. ‘’
At this low point, Cherie found solace in spending time at a scenic reservoir near her home. The daily visits offered a time of quiet reflection, which she used to learn how to love herself again.
“I had always been a go-getter and now it was like, ‘Who am I dependent on a life-support device, with very few friends left?’” Sometimes she uncovered the answers through tears; other times she felt peace.
With the help of her care team and a hospital support group, Cherie not only regained her sense of self; she began to thrive again. “Thankfully, NewYork-Presbyterian has a thorough heart-transplant program, which incorporates group training and therapy for those on the LVAD awaiting transplant,” she says. “Both the patients and their caregivers can attend. This group helped me prepare physically and emotionally for surgery.”
Walking Through Fire
In late October 2014, Cherie received the call she had been waiting for: A donor heart was available. She returned to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia to undergo a transplant. But it did not go as planned. Instead, a harrowing turn of events occurred when the donor heart didn’t start right away, and Cherie was again placed on the same temporary life support, ECMO, that saved her years before. The heart recovered quickly and began functioning, and the life support was removed a little over a week later.
After spending three months recovering in the hospital, Cherie returned home to Connecticut and slowly restarted her life. She began an exercise regimen. “With my new heart, I could run where I never could before,” says Cherie, who is also back to running her own digital branding firm that offers client consultations and online personal branding training.
Cherie says the past seven years have had a profound impact on her outlook, and she credits the care she received at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia with putting her on the path to good health.
“From the first day I came in, dead on arrival, myself and my family have never seen such exceptional nursing care,” says Cherie. “It’s hard for me to even share it without tearing up. Everybody in that cardiothoracic intensive care unit treated me like family from the moment I came in there. And I’ll never forget, one of the nurses said to my mother, ‘I know she’s your daughter and I know you’re terrified, but she’s my daughter now and it’s my responsibility to keep her alive.’ I get goose bumps every time I think of that.”
Once shy, Cherie says she now lives boldly. Before, she never tried to lead people. Now, she stands in front of international crowds speaking about her experience. “My talk is called ‘How to Walk Through Fire.’ It’s about teaching people how to bounce back, how to be resilient, and how to find peace and love for yourself amidst the fire.”
In May, she traveled to Italy to share her story of triumph at a business retreat with 50 other entrepreneurs. “It’s a miracle my heart was given enough time to rest on the LVAD, buying me time as I waited on the transplant list for a donor heart. There are no words to describe the gift of the LVAD device,” she tells people. “It’s the reason I’m healthy and able to live out my purpose around the world.”
Cherie is growing her brand, Live Big Be Happy, into an inspirational platform, encouraging people to live their best life. The platform will showcase her upcoming podcast show, interviews with special guests, speaking events, books, articles, and resources.
She is also a contributor and partner at Influencive, where she shares her message of hope with millions of readers.
Soon, she plans to write a letter to her heart-transplant donor family to thank them for the gift of life.
“Lives are being impacted through me thanks to the generosity of their loved one’s heart,” she says. “Any lives I touch are touched by everyone who helped save my life.”
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