Heart-transplant survivor celebrates decade of life

Halted air traffic on Sept. 11, 2001, meant organs could not be transported by air

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist events 3,000 miles away became real and terrifying for 13-year-old Jennifer Silva and her family as she awaited delivery of her new heart at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

Silva had spent weeks clinging to life in the pediatric heart-transplant unit. That very day she had learned she would receive a new heart. But halted air traffic meant life-saving organs that needed to travel by air weren't going anywhere.

Silva lay in Lucile Packard Children's Hospital with heart failure from dilated cardiomyopathy. Her heart function was 3 percent of normal. Her family didn't know how she would get her new heart, they said. Transplanting organs is a critical process that must be well-timed and a good fit -- the right organ for the right recipient -- and if she missed this window, no one knew when another heart would be available.

Until a month before her transplant, Silva was an active, athletic girl. She loved cheerleading, waterskiing and going to movies with friends. But in the summer of 2001, the Vacaville teenager didn't feel right. She was always exhausted, had trouble eating and couldn't lie down flat. After half a dozen trips to the doctor, her family still didn't know what was wrong.

At a backyard barbecue in August 2001 Silva, who had a swimsuit on, stood up from the patio chair. Her entire back was bruised in the pattern on the plastic chair. "We need to get her to the hospital now," Silva remembers her stepdad saying.

"I felt like I had the flu. I would never have guessed that my heart was failing," Jennifer said.

"My entire world just crashed," Silva's mom, Naomi Gunther, said. "Three days before she went into the hospital she was bungee jumping. The diagnosis was a total shock."

Silva spent two weeks at the U.C. Davis Medical Center while she received tests to determine if a transplant would be necessary, her family recalled. She was transferred to the Children's Heart Center at Packard Hospital, the only place in Northern California with teams that perform pediatric heart transplants, and was placed on the transplant list. As with most children who have her diagnosis, it was never determined what had caused Silva's heart to fail.

After 10 days, Silva's condition deteriorated again. Her own heart couldn't keep her alive anymore. To extend her life while she waited for a donor heart, she underwent surgery on Sept. 9, 2001, to place her on a left ventricular assist device, a machine that could temporarily fill in for her failing heart.

On Sept. 11 at 1 a.m. a nurse told Silva's parents a matching heart was available.

"We both started to cry," Gunther recalled of her and her husband Paul's mixed emotions of finding a heart but knowing that its donor's family was grieving.

But elation turned to trepidation when a few hours later the family saw the first news of the terrorist attacks on television.

"Of course we were in shock for the world. At the same time, we were thinking Jennifer might not get her heart," Gunther said.

Mary Burge, heart transplant social worker at Packard Hospital, recalled the mood in the hospital that day: "The whole feeling in the hospital was surreal."

Television sets around the building, normally tuned to kid-friendly cartoons, instead replayed hijacked jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center.

"People were giving glances at any TV set that was turned on, then focusing back down on medicine. It was very strange," she said.

But although Silva's life hung in the balance on Sept. 11, luck was on her side amid the nation's tragedy. She became one of a small handful of people in America to receive organ transplants while the nation's air traffic was shut down because the donor heart was local and didn't have to travel to her by air.

Two hours after the nation's air traffic was grounded, the family learned that Silva's heart donor was in San Francisco, her family said.

"One thing in the world turned out right today," Silva's surgeon, Bruce Reitz, M.D., told her family at the conclusion of the seven-hour surgery. "The heart was a perfect match."

On Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011, a decade after the 9/11 tragedy, Silva returned to Packard Hospital to celebrate her transplant 10 years ago. Since her transplant she has made the most of her life, eventually returning to school and graduating with her class in 2006. Now 23, Silva recently bought her own home.

Ten years after 9/11, Silva's heart is again starting to fail; she will likely be listed for a second transplant soon. But she keeps a positive outlook, grateful for every day, and stays busy helping with her sister's three small kids as her health allows, she said.

She's planning to spend this Sept. 11 as she has each year since her surgery. She thinks of the day as her second birthday -- an occasion for a celebratory barbeque with her family, some close friends, her boyfriend and their two dogs.

For Gunther, who made Silva a scrapbook of photos of her hospital stay and news clippings about the terrorist attacks, the annual celebration brings back her feelings from the day of Silva's transplant.

"All we did was think about her and watch the news," Gunther said. "We were so scared for the whole world, but it gave us some relief that she got her new heart."

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