Morris continues to improve after scare with heart rejection

By: 
Monika Spaulding, Digital Editor

Life had just started to feel normal again for Katie Morris when things took a terrible turn for her in December.

Just two and a half years ago, on July 6, 2014, she received a new heart through a transplant at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Everything had been going great for her until her body suddenly rejected the heart.

Many people have questioned how Katie’s body could reject the heart after being in her body so long. Her mom, Christine, said Katie has done very well, overall, since having the transplant. She explained that while rejection is most frequent during the first few weeks or months after transplant, it can happen at any time during the patient’s life.  

“The body never fully recognizes the transplanted organ as its own,” she said. “That is the reason for lifetime anti-rejection medications, frequent labs and cardiac clinic visits, and regular cardiac catheterizations. All of these are necessary in monitoring the health of the patient and the heart. 

Katie was admitted to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital on Dec. 19.  

“She had had a cold the previous week, just a plain old regular cold, and had been feeling better,” said Christine. “She went to work on Sunday and we went out to eat late Sunday afternoon. Monday morning she said that she felt her cold might be moving into her chest. We went to her primary care physician, who ruled out bronchitis, pneumonia, strep throat, and flu. Her doctor ran labs, but the results were not back by the time the office closed for the day. “

After supper Monday night, Katie’s stomach started to hurt and she began vomiting.  

“She was very pale and felt weak with little exertion,” said Christine. “We went to the St. Vincent ER, where they ran all the same tests as her doctor had. When the labs returned the ER doctor was concerned that the labs indicated she could have sepsis.”

Katie was transported by ambulance to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital overnight. Once there, she was treated in the trauma center and transferred to cardiac ICU.   

“Shortly after arriving in her room, one of her cardiac physicians, who has known Katie for several years, came in to inform us that he did not believe this was sepsis, he believed it was rejection,” said Christine. 

She said from then on there were approximately 40 people in the hall outside her room. Tests indicated her heart function was very poor, she was very weak, and gray in color. Several teams of doctors were ready to jump into action if she went into cardiac arrest before they were able to get her to surgery.  

“She was intubated and taken to surgery to receive a ventricular assist device (VAD) on the left side of her heart, to do the heart’s work for her, and to keep blood flow to the rest of her body,” Christine explained.  “Her incision remained open in case a need developed to add the VAD to the right side of her heart also.”

Because of the heart’s failure, Katie’s other organs, especially her liver and kidneys, also sustained significant injury.  

“She was placed on 24 hour dialysis to take the stress off her kidneys,” said her mom. “She remained on life support for 12 days while her body rested and tried to recover.”

During this time she was treated aggressively for rejection and for inflammation in case she was battling a case of endocarditis. 

After the first several days, an echocardiogram showed no improvement in her left heart function. Christine said this was devastating news and led to several discussions about what her options for life would be if she survived.  

“After several more days, the echocardiogram showed significant and unexpected improvement,” said Christine. “A third showed good cardiac function.  She was taken to surgery to remove the VAD and did very well.”

Much to the family’s relief, Katie’s heart had recovered and was able to support her. 

Two days later, New Year’s Day, she was removed from the ventilator. When she woke up, she was unable to move, except for her fingers and toes due to a combination of deconditioning  from lack of mobility and the hard hit her organs and body suffered during the heart failure.  

Christine said Katie’s liver started recovering.  Her kidneys also started functioning and then abruptly stopped, causing a need for continued dialysis support.  After three weeks in CICU, she was moved to the cardiac step down unit, where she is continuing to recover.  

“Her most recent echocardiogram showed normal heart function,” she said. “Her kidneys have started to wake up and are now improving. They have started to wean her from dialysis and will soon transfer her to inpatient rehab.”

Katie is now able to stand with help, and is working hard to get her mobility back. After she regains her strength and can safely return home, she will need to continue rehab and possible dialysis as she continues to recover.

Christine said that while rejection can happen at any time, in Katie’s case, it happened very suddenly.

“Sunday she was fine and Monday she was not,” she said. “In talking with the heart failure team, we learned that it can happen that way sometimes, and in their words, it’s always shocking and terrible.  Much of the time they’re able to see it coming through labs and other tests and are able to act accordingly with medications to correct it.  Katie’s rejection was puzzling, in that her body behaved much like she had endocarditis, inflammation in the inner lining of the heart.  It is possible that her cold triggered an overreaction in her body that led to rejection, that she had endocarditis (which anyone can get) that could have triggered the rejection or that any combination of the three could have caused it.  

“They will probably never know the exact cause. One of her doctors said it was possible all of these things may have contributed to create the ‘perfect storm’.”

As of press time, Katie said she is doing much better. 

“I can stand with help, I’ve been eating a lot more and I’m moving to the rehab floor here at the hospital, which is the last step to going home,” she said. “We don’t know when we will be going home, but I’ve been working really hard to come home as soon as possible. I just want friends and family to know that I’m working every day to come home and that I’m doing much better.”

Katie graduated from Salem High School in 2017. She is a graphic design major at IUS.

“And I love it!” she said.  “I was unable to start my second semester, my parents unrolled me from my classes so that I can focus on recovering once I get home. I’m planning on taking some online classes this summer and returning to school in the fall.”

Before all of this happened, Katie said she was thriving. 

“I love college!” she said. “I’m a member of Alpha Phi- a sorority on campus- and joining was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was going to my classes while also working two jobs and going to all of our sorority events. I was really happy with where I was in life. My doctors assure us that I’ll get back to those things eventually, but right now the most important thing is to focus on getting better.”

Katie is the daughter of Chris and Christine Morris of Salem.

monika@salemleader.com

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