A THANKSGIVING STORY: Gratitude at every heartbeat
Teacher with a new heart celebrates her second chance at life, San Angelo, Texas
SAN ANGELO, Texas — What a difference a year makes for Central High School teacher Sarah Pipkin.
A year ago this week, she was in a San Antonio hospital, at the beginning of a roller-coaster ride that ended with a heart transplant in June.
Sharing a precooked chicken from H-E-B with her mom, dad and sister last year on Thanksgiving Day in the hospital room, she said, “It was the best Thanksgiving I ever had.”
“The family was together,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. We were giving thanks for life.”
Soon after Sarah was born in 1985, she was diagnosed with aortic stenosis, a condition in which the aortic valve to the heart is partially blocked.
After her first open heart surgery at 2 weeks old, her doctor said she should “live life, and do what every normal kid would do.”
Doctors said her body would tell her when it was time for a transplant.
Throughout Sarah’s childhood, she played sports, went to church, and “never held back,” she said.
Sarah played collegiate soccer at McMurry University and West Texas A&M University.
“Coaches allowed me to play, and stop when I needed to,” she said.
Two months after Sarah finished playing her senior year of soccer, doctors found a blood clot in her foot. Doctors also found that pressure inside her lungs was increasing and her heart had continued growing after it should have stopped.
She began taking medicine for her heart and lungs for the first time in December 2008, after graduating from WTA&M.
In the summer of 2009, Sarah saw her cardiologist, Dr. Bloom, and made a regular follow-up appointment for three months later.
Three weeks later, she needed to see him again.
“Something’s not right,” the doctor told her. The demand on her heart and lungs had changed dramatically in the three weeks since he had seen her.
“At 2 weeks old, we rolled our sleeves up, and got you through your soccer playing years,” Bloom told her.
Sarah went from running five miles every other day to struggling to walk the halls of Central High School, where she was a first-year teacher.
By Thanksgiving of last year, she was wearing an external defibrillator every minute of every day and needed her mom to help her get ready to take a shower.
She taught her classes wearing a port — a semipermanent injection site — and a backpack full of medication. She had to have her bags packed, ready to go to the hospital at a moment’s notice if she got a call for a heart transplant.
Sarah said she didn’t think anything about working with the port and backpack. “You gotta take care of business,” she said. “That’s the way my parents taught me.”
The students were awed by her determination.
“The respect and admiration she had from her students, for being a first-year teacher, was just unmatched,” said Central High School principal Bill Waters.
“Sarah’s just one of the people you want around,” he said. “Never did you see her without a smile, never in a bad mood, and always ‘spectacular.’ ”
“Spectacular” is Sarah’s “word” — the answer she gives when people ask, “How are you?”
She writes the word on boards in the classrooms, “Have a spectacular day.”
After a heart catheter procedure on June 21 last year, doctors released Sarah from the hospital. Because of her spectacular physical condition, she was too healthy to stay in the hospital waiting for a heart transplant.
“What got me here was my parents allowing me to be active, and stay strong,” she said. “I knew I needed to be physically strong going into transplant.”
“On June 30 of this year, while visiting a friend in Killeen, she “got the phone call” at 3:15 a.m.
Sarah compared the moment she knocked on her friend’s door to what she thinks it must be like when going into labor. “It’s time to go,” she told her friend.
While Sarah drove to San Antonio from Killeen, her mom and sister were driving to meet her from San Angelo, Her dad had to catch a flight from Odessa, where he was working.
She got to the hospital at 6:30 a.m., and nurses spent the day getting her body prepared for the surgery.
“My father made it to see me just before I went into surgery,” she said.
At 2:30 p.m., Sarah went into the operating room. By 7:30 that night, her new heart was in. Nurses told her that when her breathing tube was taken out after surgery, she said, “What’s up?”
Nurses also remember her for singing while she was being wheeled into the recovery room. “I was happy to be alive,” Sarah said.
Two hours later, her family was allowed in to see her.
“The next day, I was sitting up,” she said.
Nine days later, she was out of the hospital.
Sarah said her nurses have become like her second family. “A lot of times, nurses don’t get thanked enough,” she said.
Sarah said it takes “not only the nurses, but the entire transplant team, and even the janitors, to make the whole thing work.”
On 20 different medications when she was discharged from the hospital, Sarah was still on up to a dozen meds last month, two of which are anti-rejection drugs that she will have to take for the rest of her life.
Although she was supposed to wait six months before returning to work, doctors approved her return just three months post-surgery.
“My doctors knew I would go crazy sitting at home resting for three more months,” Sarah said.
She has to be very, very careful, though.
“I’m still living with quite a few restrictions,” she said.
Aside from constantly sanitizing her hands, she has to watch everything she eats. She cannot eat rind fruits yet. She cannot eat food from a buffet.
Aside from meds and dietary changes, Sarah’s life has changed in many other ways.
It is no surprise that she has become a huge advocate of organ donation.
“A 14-year-old made that decision (to become an organ donor),” she said. “That’s what saved my life.”
She said that two weeks before something happened to the child, he told his parents that he wanted to be an organ donor.
“I have to wait six months before I can contact (the donor’s) family,” Sarah said. “It is my hope and prayer that they contact me back.”
Sarah said that she wants them to know that their child lives on. “I’d love for them to see that I’m doing so well,” she said.
This past weekend, Sarah came in eighth place in a Donors’ Awareness 5K run. She ran with one of her nurses, and got to meet the families from the hospital’s transplant crew.
She asked race organizers who got the medals she saw on display. “They are for first, second, and third place winners, and the kids who run the race,” they told her.
“I’m 14 at heart,” she said, literally.
On Tuesday, she proudly showed off the “gold” medal to her students that she was given at the race.
As Sarah’s math class, which she co-teaches with Cindy Byrd, was winding down on Tuesday, several of her students started talking about her surgery.
“I would feel weird having someone else’s heart inside me,” a student said.
“Well, if it’s the difference between living and dying?” Sarah replied.
“It’s probably something that’s really hard to think about it,” Byrd said, “but think about Ms. Pipkin. Do you think that was a hard choice for them?”
“It helped eight other families get the gift of life,” Sarah said.
“I realized real quick, at a young age, how precious life is.”
Every 13 minutes, a new name is added to the national transplant waiting list. Every day, 17 people die waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant.
There are 1,240,769 certified organ donors in Texas. Signing up to become an organ, tissue and eye donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation, and enhance another 50 through tissue donation.