MUCATINE, Iowa — An unexpected call came in at 2:30 a.m. and Brian Willits told his wife, Sue, “Pack your bags, we’re going to Mayo.” A road trip and whirlwind of emotion and excitement ensued, and about five hours later, Sue Willits was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., preparing for a heart and kidney transplant.
Just over three months later, Sue Willits is home and grateful for the new life she has been given after years of illness and suffering from a virus attacking her heart.
“I’m practically perfect!” said Willits, 57, who underwent the dual transplant on Dec. 14, 2015, and returned home on March 9. “I was able to come home a week early because I was doing so well.”
In April 2009, Willits discovered she had viral cardiomyopathy caused by a viral infection resulting in the heart to function poorly.
“I was originally treated for pneumonia because I had a terrible cough,” she said, recalling the initial diagnosis. “But it was actually because my heart was flooding with blood rather than pumping it out. I had a stent placed in my heart and had to take lots of medications.”
That was the beginning of a lengthy battle for Willits, who grew weak and was unable to live life as she once had. By the end of January 2014, she was sleeping 20 hours a day and was worn out during any activity. It was then that she decided to return to Davenport’s Genesis Medical Center for help and discovered that her kidneys had shut down due to poor heart circulation.
On Valentine’s Day 2014 she began dialysis treatments three days a week, four hours a day.
“The doctor said, ‘This is how it was going to be.’ I said ‘No, I am not going to do this. I am too young,’” Willits recalled.
She was placed on the transplant recipient waiting list but she wanted more. She would not accept her fate. Doctors gave her more hope when they referred her to the Mayo Clinic for further review of her condition.
“I refuse to be the sick person in the room. That isn’t me,” she said. “I had to do whatever I could to find an answer.”
Months went by and Willits continued dialysis and frequent four-hour trips to Mayo Clinic, where she found the doctors to be positive and encouraging. She never gave up hope and had the support and prayers from her family, including her husband and their children Brison and Nicole. She also felt blessed to know many friends and well-wishers in the community were praying for her.
“When I got that call I knew all of the prayers must have really counted. God was listening,” Willits said.
Her nearly 12-hour surgery included removing the lower portion of her heart and attaching the lower half of a donor’s heart in its place, Willits said. The surgeon told her that when her new heart began to beat, her kidneys began to function again. Still, one donor kidney was attached, giving her three kidneys, in order to ensure that she would be healthy. The remaining donor kidney went to another recipient, she was informed.
Willits was told that the donor was a “younger person from the Rochester area,” which inspired her new life motto: “young at heart.” Willits knows she can never express how grateful she is that a stranger saved her life and hopes someday she will hear from the donor’s family after they’ve had time to grieve.
After spending nearly three months in recovery at the Gift of Life Transplant House in Rochester, Willits is in awe of how well she feels and has trouble explaining how happy she is to be home. Though she has a pacemaker in her chest and many lifestyle changes and doctors appointments ahead, she can’t quit smiling.
“I feel awesome, I missed my home and my life. After everything, I can say that I am happy. I feel so much better — it’s such a great ending,” Willits said.