For Pat Sutherland, a new heart – and a new outlook
If you see a red-haired woman around town wearing a surgical mask and like the way it’s decorated, don’t be upset if she gives you a fist bump instead of a handshake or a hug. Pat Sutherland, 57, avoids these methods of social interaction not because she’s heartless, but because the one beating in her chest today is not the one she was born with. The drugs she takes to prevent her body from rejecting the heart she was given last March 23 make her susceptible to infections. She also can’t have pet fish or cats, or house plants, or be around mold or ceiling fans. Movie theaters and other enclosed areas with large crowds are off limits, as are children who’ve recently been inoculated. When she leaves her home, Sutherland must wear a surgical-type mask (known as a “duckbill”) and stay at least an arms-length away from people. “This year, I’ve missed three family weddings and a couple of baby showers,” Sutherland said, adding that she also had to sit out a large family Christmas gathering. Only at home can she take off the mask to spend time with her husband of nearly 21 years, Maury Lackey, or their two dogs. (Sutherland joked that she kept her maiden name so as not to be called Pat S. Lackey – “Pat Slackey.”) The mask and occasional missed outing are small prices to pay for a new life, however – and a new outlook on that life. In May of 2015, Sutherland was working for the Legislative Research Commission (LRC) and had just finished a typically taxing General Assembly session when she realized something was wrong. She was always tired, and the month of relative ease after the busy session ended in mid-April hadn’t restored her energy level. She couldn’t get in to see her Lexington cardiologist for several months, but others doctors began to discover what was wrong. For years, she’d had problems with her ejection fraction – a measure of her heart’s ability to pump blood to the rest of her body. “It had gotten down to, like, 20 percent, which means you’re hardly moving,” Sutherland said. She still doesn’t know why her heart went bad. It could have been the chemotherapy and radiation treatments after a 1998 lumpectomy, or genes, as her mother had died from congestive heart failure. A bout of cardiomyopathy weakened her heart further. “It could have attacked any other organ in the body, but this one just kind of chose my heart,” Sutherland said. Whatever the cause, by Derby Day of 2015, Sutherland knew something was very wrong. In November of that year, she was put on a heart transplant list. Her O-positive blood type made a match less likely – they are universal donors, but can only accept organs from someone with the same blood type. Over the months that followed, there were false alarms: Three hearts seemed available, but none of them were right for her. “It was like the Three Bears – one heart was too small, one heart was too big, and one heart was diseased,” Sutherland said. In order to move up on the transplant list, she was fitted with a Swan-Ganz heart catheter to measure blood and oxygen levels in the right side of her heart. Each treatment lasted for a week to 10 days, during which she had to be in isolation in the Jewish Hospital Coronary Care Unit. The device was inserted through her neck and, Sutherland said, after a few of the eight treatments she eventually took, she was left looking as if vampires had visited her. She spent last February and March in the hospital. On March 21, word came that there was a matching heart. “I was so excited, and then I realized it was the day my father had passed, 15 years earlier,” Sutherland said. The previous evening, she’d told her husband that she was tired of being in the hospital, by herself except for hospital staff and bombarded with buzzes and beeps from machines. “I’m so isolated from everybody. I miss the dogs, I miss home, I miss real food, because 60 days on a hospital menu?” Sutherland said, grimacing. “We’d almost reconciled ourselves just to go home, or have a VAD (ventricular assist device).” The VAD posed its own problems, though, and when Sutherland learned a donor heart was available, she said yes. “It was like the Indianapolis 500. I had all these thoughts running through my mind so fast, it was all these things that I needed to do, but I did not feel afraid,” she said. “When we were rolling into surgery on the evening of the 22nd, the doctor made me take my bunny ears off.” The woman who’d later personalize her surgical masks with buttons and drawings had been wearing the bunny ears to support a local Comic Relief drive. What was usually a 12-hour procedure took about 10, Sutherland said. She awoke in pain, with tubes and other devices attached seemingly everywhere – and then Maury took her picture. “No woman wants her picture taken without her makeup and hair done …” Sutherland said. What her husband saw, though, and what Sutherland already felt like, was a healthier woman. For the first time in a long time, she could feel a strong pulse. Her face was still pale, but its gray cast had been replaced by a bit of color. “It was like, is this real or not?” Sutherland said. The operation was a success, but in the first month afterwards, Sutherland underwent weekly heart biopsies. The weekly procedures became twice-monthly for a few months, and now, she undergoes the fairly painful biopsy every other month. Almost a year after receiving a new heart, the number of anti-rejection and other pills Sutherland takes has dropped from 20 or so a day to about 10. She exercises three times a week and tries to stick to a heart-healthy diet. The biggest change in her post-transplant life, however, has to do not with her body, but rather, her spirit. “I’m more positive. I choose my battles, you know – it’s like, ‘That’s not worth getting upset over.’ I don’t get as upset over things as I used to,” she said. “I’m more easy-going, but I also feel like, ‘Live life, you’re only here once,’ and if I get irritated with somebody, instead of giving them a good old Sutherland cussing, I might just kind of ignore them and go on.” She doesn’t know whose heart is beating in her chest, but joked that she suspects it belonged to a man who likes to drink beer and watch soccer. Explaining that women can receive male or female hearts, Sutherland chuckled and said, “Sorry guys, you have to have a male heart.” As soon as next week, she may find out who died so that she may live. A year after a transplant, the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry contacts the family of the donor to see if they’d like to be contacted by the person or people whose life their loved one saved. Sutherland hopes her donor’s family says yes, because she’d like to hear from them, or send them a letter. “I’ve been writing letters to them in my mind, because how do you thank somebody for something like that?” Sutherland said. She’s begun the letter many times, and though it’s not finished yet, she knows most of what she wants to say, some of which will be on behalf of the others who benefited from her donor’s organs. “‘Words cannot express how much I appreciate your family member donating … their heart to me. It is the gift of life, and I just want you to know how much I appreciate that, and how … important you are to so many people.’ If I can do it without crying, that will be a miracle,” Sutherland said. She also praises her doctors and nurses and supporters like the Versailles couple who sent her a card every day she was in the hospital. Sutherland said she expects a normal life now, aside from the restrictions, and even those, she tries to have fun with. The duckbill masks will be decorated as she likes. When she was in the hospital, and didn’t have access to buttons and other bedazzlers, she drew animal faces or smiley faces or big lips on it. Sometimes, she wore a sleep mask backwards when she walked down the hall. “I decided if I have to wear these for quite awhile, I might as well jazz them up a little bit,” Sutherland said. “Halloween was fun.” And St. Patrick’s Day is just a few days away.