How a life-saving transplant transformed my life

| Annemarie Ward shares her journey of keeping hope alive amidst heart disease |

NEARLY 15 YEARS AGO, Annemarie Ward was walking the family’s three dogs with her mother Polly and sister Emily when she collapsed. At age seven, Annemarie had suffered a heart attack. She was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or enlargement of the heart muscle.

It was the first of five heart attacks she would suffer before receiving a heart transplant at age 18. Annemarie rattles off the date as if it was yesterday: April 9, 2000. Her family had recently moved to Jacksonville from Texas. “I went with my mom to walk the dogs, she turned around and just saw me there,” Annemarie says.

Her mother asked for help from a neighbor, Sandy Grissom, who was a pediatric nurse. Together they gave Annemarie cardiopulmonary resuscitation while her sister, age nine, took the dogs home and called their dad, Richard. “She (Emily) went into full adult mode,” Annemarie says.

Annemarie clung to life, but they thought she might be mentally handicapped because her brain had been deprived of oxygen. “I was in the hospital for about three weeks,” she explains. “I forgot how to do a lot of things.”

No one in her family had the disease. A fever she’d had when she was born may have played a role.

Although there was no cure, a defibrillator and pacemaker would give Annemarie a measure of protection from recurring episodes. She also was given medicine to control her blood pressure and cholesterol; they were medicines frequently given to people much older than she. “I wasn’t allowed to play sports,” she recalls. “That was difficult. It’s difficult for any child.”

The heart attacks didn’t stop. The defibrillator may have saved her life more than once. It also shortened recovery times to as little as a week.

One of those heart attacks came at a dance recital when she was 14. “I was in front of hundreds of people. I ended up fainting on stage,” she says. “Dance was something I loved. It was something I wanted to pursue. It wasn’t something I could control.” She had to stop dancing.

When she was 15 and 16, she battled negative emotions because of the limitations she faced. Ultimately, she decided to accept her condition, find out what she could do, and make the most of it.

“It was scary,” she acknowledges. Although well-meaning people tried to help, they weren’t living with heart disease. “You can tell me to be calm,” she remembers thinking. “I’m the one who’s going to bed with the heart condition.”

She was advised to delay medical intervention as long as she could, and wait for medical advances to occur. Then at age 17, she was placed on a waiting list for a new heart.

At 18, while at Southeastern University in Lakeland, she had yet another heart attack; this time while on her way to class. “I was walking to class. I was late. I tried to pick up my pace,” she explains. Although she was only walking briskly, the cold air and rush of adrenaline caused her to faint again. “First I couldn’t dance. Now I’m unable to even walk to a college course. How much more limited could I possibly be? It was emotionally overwhelming,” she says.

Despite the dismal facts, she chose to focus on the positive. “Even though I couldn’t walk to class and I couldn’t dance, I have a family that is extremely supportive, and friends who love and support me regardless of my situation,” she says. “I can walk. I can see. I can hear. I know I have all the reason to whine — but I’m not going to.”

A week before final exams, as she was working on a psychology assignment, her mom called her with the news: They have a heart for you. “I started immediately bursting into tears,” Annemarie says.

The next day she drove to Gainesville for the surgery. “I never had more peace in my entire life. It was the weirdest feeling,” says Annemarie, who is a Christian. “I knew this was the Lord’s will. This was meant to happen so I could share my story, like I’m doing now.”

Annemarie, who is now 21, was in the hospital for a month. She recovered in the summer, then tried to return to school. But her immune system was “non-existent,” she says. The drugs they gave her so her body wouldn’t reject the heart had lowered her resistance. Annemarie was forced to drop out; but she returned in the spring of 2013.

Now Annemarie is a junior studying social work, which she says she has “fallen in love with.” She is enjoying the freedom to dance in her room, skate on her long board, boogie board in the surf, and even run. She is supposed to warm up and cool down, avoiding violent beginnings or stops. “My goal is to run in a 5K this year,” she says.

In the meantime, she is in weightlifting class, getting ready. “I’m hoping that will help me get in shape,” she says. “I really want to become a jogger or runner for sure. I enjoy it when I do it. It’s really an amazing feeling.”

What kind of advice does Annemarie have for others? “I want people to know that, regardless of where they are at, there’s hope,” she says. “You have to hold on to that.”



photos by PEZZIMENTI

To learn more about how you can prevent heart disease for yourself and the women in your life, click here. For more information about how you can help raise awareness for heart disease and stroke, contact the American Heart Association / American Stroke Association Tampa Bay at (727) 563-8062 or visit these websites:

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