Columnist's preface: I first met heart transplant recipient Leah Smith in 1999. She was 7 and on her way from Fort Wayne to Washington, D.C., to meet with Congress and then-President Bill Clinton as part of a delegation chosen by the American Society of Transplant Surgeons to raise awareness on the shortage of organ donations. Born without the lower left chamber of her heart, Leah received a heart transplant when she was 11 days old. Wise beyond her years, she told me the Texas parents of a baby named Jimmy donated his heart after he died in an accident. “We're sad for his family,” she said, “but if they hadn't decided to have their son be a donor, then there would be two kids dead.”
Jimmy's heart has been beating inside Leah Smith's chest for 22 years. It has served her well. In that time she's won multiple state figure skating championships and competitively ballroom danced her way to top awards. She's met U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and skated with figure skating legend Michelle Kwan.
Leah has been a Children's Miracle Network Champion, served as a lobbyist for the National Association of Children's Hospitals and had a national foundation formed in her honor by race car driver and automobile designer the late Carroll Shelby, also a heart transplant recipient. She's hobnobbed with Jay Leno and met other dignitaries and celebrities.
But spend a few minutes in conversation with Leah Smith and you know her life is not centered on self. She wants to serve others, whether through volunteering for the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization, Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis or the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The Huntington University senior has plans, including returning to the ice, if not competitively, then as a coach or judge. But those plans are on hold because Leah needs a new heart. The one she got from Jimmy is failing, its arteries stiffening, which sometimes occurs with transplanted hearts.
In 2009, Smith, then a high school senior, was becoming increasingly fatigued, so much so that she gave up competitive figure skating.
Then in May 2012, chest pain started.
Despite the ongoing pain and fatigue, Smith started her senior year at HU. One Friday in mid-December, the chest pain became unrelenting. She called her mom at work.
“This feels different,” Leah told Joan Smith. They went to Lutheran Hospital, where doctors told Leah she was having a heart attack. She was transferred to Riley, where doctors said she would need a second heart transplant. She was transferred to nearby Methodist Hospital. Leah was able to go home for Christmas with instructions to lose weight before she could be put on the transplant waiting list.
Because of medications, her failing heart and lack of activity, Leah had put on pounds. She started a strict diet.
A second, nearly fatal heart attack in late February sent Leah back to Methodist Hospital. Tests showed her heart function had deteriorated.
“It was felt her time was very limited,” Joan says. Leah had developed an antigen from her first transplant that created antibodies that would precipitate rejection of a second transplant.
“The options were go home and die or stay (at the hospital) and die,” Joan says. “Leah decided going home was not an option. She would stay and fight. Her infectious spirit and smile stole the team's hearts, causing them to want to fight with her.”
Leah's fight has included a grueling procedure to remove the antigen from her blood and intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) to keep the antibodies at bay.
A seizure on March 26 led to the need for a pacemaker.
She is now only about 10 pounds away from the weight-loss goal and being on the transplant list.
Leah says her strong faith and the prayers of friends and family keep her encouraged, noting, “I don't know where I'd be if I didn't know I was supported by a good God.”
As of March 29, 50 people in Indiana were on the waiting list for a new heart, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Sometimes Leah ponders who might be the donor of her new heart. Now and then she thinks about Jimmy and the courageous decision his parents made to donate his organs.
“I didn't have to think about that the first time around because I was a baby,” Leah says. “This time I'm constantly praying for someone to make the right decision and to be able to help others – not just myself, but others too.”
To follow Leah's progress, go to www.facebook.com/pages/Team-Leah/403974979698878?fref=ts.
This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.