Healthbeat Report: Heart of the Storm

February 17, 2011 9:06:39 PM PST
Memories of the Blizzard of 2011 have melted for many, especially as temperatures rise and thoughts of spring take over. For one Chicago woman, however, the blizzard will forever be a storm of unimaginable luck.

For many hospitals the business of saving lives doesn't stop for a blizzard. Some procedures such as transplants can't be put on hold. But when airports, highways and neighborhoods are crippled by snow, the process of organ allocation can take an unexpected turn.

That's what happened at one local hospital and it changed the life of a frail, but determined patient.

For Charlotte Wilkens, the storm was a Godsend.

"Without it, it's possible I would not be here with this new heart, this new gift and I am grateful," Wilkens told ABC7.

Coronary artery disease was ravaging Wilkens' vessels and arteries. She survived heart attacks and bypass surgeries but her heart muscle was failing.

"You cant really live a normal life because you are limited," said Wilkens.

But her case was complicated. Just under 5 feet and barely 100 pounds, the petite West Sider didn't have many options. Her only hope was a transplant. But the chances of that happening were slim. Even though her heart could stop at any time, she was still way down on the transplant list because so many others were considered sicker than she was.

"The odds of someone, a heart falling that far down the list is almost zero," said Dr. Robert Love, cardiac thoracic surgeon, Loyola University Medical Center.

This is where the luck of nearly two feet of snow comes in.

Dr. Love says it was Wednesday morning as the blizzard was still in its heaviest phase when the Loyola transplant team got word of a donor heart available in the northern suburbs. He says many others wanted it, but due to the weather they simply could not get to it. It was the right size and blood type for Wilkens. Technically, she was number 100 on the list. And then suddenly she became number 1.

"It's fairly likely this would be the only opportunity for Charlotte to be transplanted," said Wilkens.

Loyola doctors decided it was worth the risk to send a team after the heart. Chicago firefighter Michael McGrath received the call. He works part-time with Aerocare, a company that delivers and transport organs. But just hours earlier he was in the thick of the storm working as a firefighter and helping stranded motorists. So he knew the roads might be bad and timing would be crucial.

"The roads were still pretty messed up right around the hospital so but we just had to go a little slower on the way," said McGrath.

Meanwhile, Wilkens got a call she never expected. A heart was available could she get to Loyola from her Chicago home in three hours. The street was unplowed and their car was buried.

"We tried police, ambulance, private ambulance, fire department, all said the same thing they ain't plowed the street yet, we can't get down," said Leonard Wilkens, husband.

Finally, a family friend offered his truck, but she would have to trek trough the snow about 100 yards to meet the driver. In her condition a walk like that was a challenge.

"Snow was up above her knee. Every time I tried to pick her up she started hollering I can walk," said Leonard Wilkens.

She made it and doctors who worked round the clock say the surgery was a success.

Charlotte Wilkens will never forget the Blizzard of 2011 and all those responsible for her second chance at life.

"My precious donor may not be here but the heart lives on in me, so I am eternally grateful," said Wilkens.

Doctors say she gets stronger each day and is making progress. Wilkens says she realizes she never would have gotten this heart if someone had not died. She is awed by the family's gift and hopes to one day thank them in person.

Gift of Hope - Organ & Tissue Donor Network

United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) is the private, non-profit organization that manages the U.S. organ