- Story and photos courtesy of NJ Sharing Network
Family and friends of Gina Westhoven love her energetic personality and zest for life. She takes pride in her life-saving work as an EMT with Englewood Volunteer Ambulance Corp. and as a business owner. She has a great love for traveling to some of the world’s most-beautiful beaches and enjoys chilling with her mom, family, friends and her 70-pound pit bull Micki.
But four years ago, Gina began to face serious health issues for the first time in her life. She constantly felt zapped of energy, and, at times, she struggled to breathe and could barely walk. She went from specialist-to-specialist in search of answers. One diagnosed asthma, another, pneumonia. Her symptoms got worse. Ultimately, the medical staff at Chilton Medical Center diagnosed Gina with congestive heart failure (CHF).
Gina knew a bit about heart disease – from her father, who died of it at age 45 – and from the patients she saw as an EMT. “I thought I was going to die in a matter of days,” said Gina.
The cardiac experts at Chilton Medical Center and Morristown Medical Center managed Gina’s condition. Gina was first supported with a defibrillator and medications. A cardiomems electronic device was implanted to help monitor her heart, and it soon became apparent that Gina needed a milrinone pump for short-term treatment. An LVAD (left ventricular assist device) was then attached directly to her heart with an external battery pack to pump her damaged heart.
“Thanks to the LVAD, I was able to walk and breathe again,” said Gina. “I was able to do my daily activities without it being a huge struggle.”
While Gina felt extremely blessed, she was eager to get a heart transplant with hopes that her health would be fully restored.
“For two years with the LVAD, in some situations it felt like I was sitting on the sidelines watching everyone else live life to its fullest,” said Gina. “The LVAD kept me alive, but there was so much more that I wanted to do – international travel, swim, have children. I was debating on whether or not it was the right time for me to get a transplant or stay on the LVAD. I remember my primary doctor asking me; ‘Are you living to survive or are you living to live life?’ I realized at the time that I was only living to survive. I was now determined to be listed for a heart transplant for a better quality of life. My family, friends and medical team encouraged me every step of the way.”
On December 14, 2020, Gina received the phone call that a heart was available. The next day, she underwent a successful transplant surgery at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
“When I first woke up from transplant, I remember crying because I was happy to be alive but at the same time felt guilty because somewhere a family was putting their loved one to rest,” said Gina. “I am forever grateful to my donor – there’s just not enough ways to say ‘thank you.’ My donor wanted to give the gift of life, and God chose my donor for me. Because they both said ‘yes,’ it makes me feel less guilty.”
Now several months post-transplant, Gina continues to honor her donor as she grows stronger and healthier each day.
“My heart is my new best friend – to honor my donor I know I must protect it,” said Gina. “Sometimes it feels like this has all been just a dream. But when I look in the mirror, I see my scar and it reminds me that I am truly alive.”
Gina jokingly admits that she’s aware that her feisty spirit is also getting back on track.
“I keep telling my family, friends and co-workers that ‘Gina Version 2.0’ will be better than ever,” said Gina. “My cardiac rehab team has not quite cleared me yet for all activities yet. But I can’t wait to try jet skiing for the first time!”
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