Brendalis Vega’s life, for 18 years, has been raising her children. The Buffalo mom of six had never been away from them for more than a couple of days; her 2-year-old, never more than a few hours. But in early January, life changed drastically.
The stay-at-home mom from Hamburg, N.Y., began to experience shortness of breath and chest pains. Within a few days, she went from being at home feeling energetic and healthy, to a Buffalo hospital emergency room. She was eventually rushed to UR Medicine Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.
The 35-year-old needed a heart transplant.
Vega left her children, who range in age from 18 to 2, and her partner, Jose Collazo, and would spend two months at Strong Memorial. Pandemic visitor restrictions meant only one designated adult visitor, her sister who lives locally. Vega was able to frequently Facetime with Collazo and their children, but it could never fill the void she felt. As her condition worsened, she was terrified she’d never see her children again.
“She had experienced a rapid decline by the time she arrived in Rochester,” said transplant cardiologist Sabu Thomas, M.D., M.Sc. The cause of her heart failure is still undetermined. “Her heart was pumping at only 15 percent; normal ejection fraction is about 60 percent. To provide support for her failing heart, we put her on medications and eventually an intra-aortic balloon pump. Because donor organs are scarce in our region and across the country, there is always a concern one won’t become available in time.”
But on Feb. 4, the UR Medicine Transplant team delivered the best news a mom could hear: A heart was available that would give Vega, and her entire family, a second chance.
Her transplant, the third for the UR Medicine team in just five days, was a success. Despite a snow storm that caused minor delays in getting the new heart to Rochester, cardiac transplant surgeons Igor Gosev, M.D., Ph.D., and Katherine L. Wood, M.D., could not have been more pleased with the outcome.
When Vega awoke after surgery, her first thought was of her children. “I had been so worried I wasn’t going to be alive for long, and my kids are so young.” A new heart meant she’d get back home.
The following day, after getting off a ventilator “in record speed,” according to Thomas, Vega was wheeled to a hospital window. At ground level four floors below, in front of the hospital’s main entrance, she could see her six children with their father, all holding red heart-shaped balloons and waving wildly.
“It was very hard for me to see them outside,” Vega said, becoming emotional at the memory. “The love of a mother is so strong. I wanted to fly down and grab them and hug them and tell them how much I miss them.”
Vega spent just four days in the cardiac ICU before being transferred to the transplant unit for further recovery. Anxious to get back to Buffalo, she expressed excitement about beginning a new chapter, which has since included a moving-up school ceremony for one of her children, and seeing her eldest graduate from high school.
“I can’t wait to get home. Being there with my family will make me even more motivated to keep getting stronger and get back to my routine. Back to my life.”
She was able to finally go home on March 8. It had been 74 days since she’d hugged her children.