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Gift of life provides strength, hope to Auburn woman and her family

STAFF REPORTS

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- As Mother’s Day nears, Roberta Watkins says only a hug from her 9-year-old compares with the extraordinary gift she received two weeks ago at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital. A generous organ donor gave the Auburn woman a new heart and renewed hope for the future. 
 
“After I had Emma, I never really celebrated motherhood, because I always felt it could be taken away due to my heart condition. Now I feel like I can take this opportunity to really celebrate it and embrace the joy of being a mother,” said Watkins, whose heart health was in jeopardy when she was in elementary school.
“I am so lucky. I always wanted to be a mother just like my mom. And when I thought about the possibility of not being able to see my daughter Emma grow up, it was painful,”
 
Watkins had reason to be worried, because her family is plagued by heart disease. Her father suffered a heart attack when she was young, which resulted in family members being tested for early signs of disease. At just 8 years old, she was diagnosed with hypertension and high cholesterol.  Efforts to eat right and exercise were no match for the genes, though. Her mother suffered a fatal heart attack and Watkins’ heart disease quietly progressed to a jarring heart attack when she was 32. 
Doctors at Auburn Community Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse and the New York Heart Center provided medication, stents and an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) for a decade, though her heart function continued to decline.
 
A year ago, Watkin’s heart team recommended specialty care available through UR Medicine Heart and Vascular’s Advanced Heart Failure team, who lead Upstate New York’s only comprehensive heart failure and transplantation service.  The group provides the most advanced treatments – medication, mechanical assist devices, artificial hearts and heart transplants – many of which are not available anywhere else in the region.
“We began aggressive medical therapy to manage her heart function,” said Sabu Thomas, M.D., UR Medicine transplant cardiologist. “Unfortunately the medications and a new ICD were not enough to stabilize her heart function and she was added to the waiting list for a new heart.”
 
Hospitalized for 100 days at Strong Memorial, she was relieved when a matching donor heart became available. Cardiac transplant surgeon Bryan Barrus, M.D., and anesthesiologist Brandon Lebow, M.D., performed the transplantation surgery.
“She received a good heart, a strong heart, and we are optimistic that she has a bright future,” said Barrus.
 
Doctors expect she could go home in the next few weeks, which will be a welcome change. Three months in the hospital was difficult because she missed her 9-year-old daughter and fiancé Nathan Litchfield
Organ transplantation success stories like Watkins’ are not possible without the generosity of organ donors. UR Medicine has provided the gift of life to 230 people since Strong Memorial’s heart transplant program began in 2001. 
 
According to the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, the organ procurement organization affiliated with the University of Rochester Medical Center and SUNY Upstate Medical University, there are about 9,300 people in the state waiting for organ transplants, including nearly 500 people on waiting lists for a new heart, liver, kidney or pancreas transplant at Strong Memorial.
New York has poor participation in its organ donor registry, ranking last among the 50 states. As a result, residents can wait months or years for a match.
 
You can register as an organ donor online at passlifeon.org or at the state Department of Health or Department of Motor Vehicles.