MIAMI – D'Zhana Simmons says she felt like a "fake person" for 118 days when she had no heart beating in her chest. "But I know that I really was here," the 14-year-old said, "and I did live without a heart."
As she was being released Wednesday from a Miami hospital, the shy teen seemed in awe of what she's endured. Since July, she's had two heart transplants and survived with artificial heart pumps — but no heart — for four months between the transplants.
Last spring D'Zhana and her parents learned she had an enlarged heart that was too weak to sufficiently pump blood. They traveled from their home in Clinton, S.C. to Holtz Children's Hospital in Miami for a heart transplant.
But her new heart didn't work properly and could have ruptured so surgeons removed it two days later.
And they did something unusual, especially for a young patient: They replaced the heart with a pair of artificial pumping devices that kept blood flowing through her body until she could have a second transplant.
Dr. Peter Wearden, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh who works with the kind of pumps used in this case, said what the Miami medical team managed to do "is a big deal."
"For (more than) 100 days, there was no heart in this girl's body? That is pretty amazing," Wearden said.
The pumps, ventricular assist devices, are typically used with a heart still in place to help the chambers circulate blood. With D'Zhana's heart removed, doctors at Holtz Children's Hospital crafted substitute heart chambers using a fabric and connected these to the two pumps.
Although artificial hearts have been approved for adults, none has been federally approved for use in children. In general, there are fewer options for pediatric patients. That's because it's rarer for them to have these life-threatening conditions, so companies don't invest as much into technology that could help them, said Dr. Marco Ricci, director of pediatric cardiac surgery at the University of Miami.
He said this case demonstrates that doctors now have one more option.
"In the past, this situation could have been lethal," Ricci said.
And it nearly was. During the almost four months between her two transplants, D'Zhana wasn't able to breathe on her own half the time. She also had kidney and liver failure and gastrointestinal bleeding.
Taking a short stroll — when she felt up for it — required the help of four people, at least one of whom would steer the photocopier-sized machine that was the external part of the pumping devices.
When D'Zhana was stable enough for another operation, doctors did the second transplant on Oct. 29.
"I truly believe it's a miracle," said her mother, Twolla Anderson.
D'Zhana said now she's grateful for small things: She'll see her five siblings soon, and she can spend time outdoors.
"I'm glad I can walk without the machine," she said, her turquoise princess top covering most of the scars on her chest. After thanking the surgeons for helping her, D'Zhana began weeping.
Doctors say she'll be able to do most things that teens do, like attending school and going out with friends. She will be on lifelong medication to keep her body from rejecting the donated heart, and there's a 50-50 chance she'll need another transplant before she turns 30.
For now, though, D'Zhana is looking forward to celebrating another milestone. On Saturday, she turns 15 and plans to spend the day riding in a boat off Miami's coast.