The women in Lupe’s family are united by a common thread: heart disease. But she wouldn’t get to see the full effect of how it would impact her family, and her outlook on life itself, for years to come. It began for Lupe in 1979, when she and her family were on vacation in San Antonio and the first sign of trouble appeared. “Overnight I started feeling terrible, and I didn’t know what was happening. I started hemorrhaging and found out I needed an emergency hysterectomy. But that’s not the most important thing I found out.” The doctor who performed the surgery noticed Lupe had an irregular heartbeat during the procedure, and advised that she see a cardiologist when she got back home to Dallas.
“Heart disease runs in my family. In fact, my mother passed away at the age of 53 from heart disease. So when I got home I quickly made the appointment.” The cardiologist at Baylor confirmed the irregular heart beat, and Lupe was run through a series of tests. She was put on medication, and for the next several years was relatively healthy. “I did everything I was supposed to do, I took all of my meds and I made to sure to attend all of my follow-up appointments. And I had few issues until 1991.”
On a Sunday morning in 1991, Lupe went into V-tach and was admitted into the hospital. Her doctor advised her that she would need a defibrillator implanted, an invasive procedure that scared her. “I asked my doctor, ‘What happens if I don’t go through with it?’ and he said, ‘Well, you would die.’ At first I thought he was just being cruel, because this was the first time I’d ever met him! But I realized he needed to be very honest with me. Since then we’ve become close.” Despite her fears, Lupe underwent the procedure knowing the implanted device would last about ten years. “My doctor also advised me that most people need a heart transplant at the end of the ten years, but I defied the odds!”
Lupe’s diligence in taking her meds, attending her appointments, and following her doctor’s advice meant her defibrillator implant ended up lasting 20 years. Near the end of her time with the defibrillator, Lupe was getting frequently shocked by the implant. “It feels like how I imagine getting kicked by a horse feels!” She jokes. Doctors used meds to try and get the shocking under control, but to no avail. After two weeks in the hospital, the shocks continued, and they decided to send her home to see if that would help. But not long after Lupe was re-admitted into the hospital. “I became afraid of everything, even stepping onto my front porch because I was getting shocked so often. I was depressed, worried my life was over, and just plain scared.”
Lupe’s doctors encouraged her to take small steps forward every day as a way to combat the fear. She had been out of work for three months, and was afraid to even drive a car because of the shocks. “My doctor said to try just driving to the end of the block and back, or to take short walks. It was really important I regain my confidence and change my mindset.” As Lupe’s small steps turned into big leaps, her confidence grew and she started feeling better about the situation. “I started calling myself the ‘Bionic Woman’ because I was getting shocked so much!”
1991 wasn’t just a landmark year because of the defibrillator. Lupe’s daughter Stephanie gave birth to a baby, and she was subsequently diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Stephanie also got an implanted defibrillator when the baby was almost three months old. Lupe now recognized that the heart issues in her family were deeply woven into all of their lives.
Lupe’s heart condition continued to get worse, and eventually she too was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. “I was becoming depressed and scared again, so I had to do something to help other people going through this. I became a volunteer at Baylor to go visit the individuals awaiting surgery for the defibrillator, just like me. It was very rewarding. They couldn’t believe I had one too, and they had so many questions. I needed to give back to others who were as scared as me.” As she continued to volunteer at Baylor, Lupe’s own health issues escalated.
“In 1995 I became ill and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. “Again I asked, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ And I was questioning God about why these things are happening. But then I hit a turning point. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous! These things were sent to me and I’m going to deal with it.” Lupe underwent chemotherapy and radiation, but this time she kept working and got through it all. Lupe’s attitude about her health and her life had changed dramatically from her early days getting shocked with the defibrillator.
Then in 2004 a traumatic event would test Lupe’s faith in the most significant way: the loss of a child. Lupe’s daughter Stephanie had lived with congestive heart failure and a defibrillator until she was 38 years old. She’d been put on the transplant list, but complications prevented her from receiving a heart. “The first time they found her a heart, she was prepped for surgery only to find that the heart itself was no good. The second time, she was running a fever too high for them to perform the surgery.” Time ran out, and Lupe’s daughter did not survive, leaving behind two children.
“Again I wondered, why is this happening to me? And again I knew I needed to deal with it and keep going.”
In 2010 Lupe’s condition began getting worse; she started having episodes of light-headedness and she was beginning to retain fluid. The doctors asked her if she was up for the kind of aggressive testing necessary to get on the heart transplant list quickly, and she agreed; not long after Lupe was put on the list. “One week before my transplant I went to church with my son and was feeling pretty good, however during the service I started feeling sick, and was having a difficult time breathing so decided to step outside. My son got my attention and he pointed to the responsorial verse and it said ‘A NEW HEART Comes For You’, and I remember looking deep into his eyes and firmly believing God was sending me a message to be patient. That would be the last time I would experience that feeling and a peacefulness came over me.”
Lupe was only on the waiting list for one week when she received the call that a heart was available for her. On March 22, 2011 she underwent heart transplant surgery. “I went through some rejection which scared me, but the doctors provided excellent care. And now six years later I’m doing well!”
In July of 2011 Lupe received a letter from the family of the heart donor, and they had included several pictures. “I tore that letter open right away, and it was very emotional, I started crying. I’m so grateful, but I know that somebody lost a child, and I know that pain. My donor was only 23. I eventually contacted them, I called my donor’s dad’s phone. He answered, and we started talking and crying. In 2012 I invited them to the Baylor Transplant Reunion. It was the first time we met in person. We hugged and cried and talked, and then went out to dinner that night. Sunday night they came to my home for dinner, and I expressed to them my immense gratitude. And we bonded over the shared tragedy of the loss of a child.”
Since then Lupe has overcome other health issues, including a stroke and shingles. But since her change of heart, both spiritually and physically, every time she gets knocked down she gets up again and keeps going. “Every night when I go to bed I give thanks. Before I even get out of bed in the morning I thank God, the donor family, and others. I’m forever grateful. And I now work to share the message of the life-saving gift of organ donation.” Lupe has stayed in touch with the donor family, and frequently receives messages of encouragement like, “We hope that beautiful heart is treating you well!” It’s a reminder that even from incredible pain can come joy, life, and love.