This Thanksgiving, two families in Cut Bank have something extra special to celebrate…the gift of life.
Penne Swenson underwent a heart transplant in January in Salt Lake City andis now home taking one day at a time.
Alice Green thinks her act of donating one of her kidneys to her brother-in-law was not that big of a deal and certainly not newsworthy.
This Thanksgiving, the Swensons and Greens have pelnty to be thankful for…and so do most of us. Let's take time to be truly thankful and count our blessings.
On Nov. 22 of last year, Penne Swenson "died" on the surgery table at Salt Lake City's LDS Hospital but doctors were able to revive her. Three months later a new, healthier heart was beating inside her. Today her life is very different than the active one she lead a mere year ago. "But it is a good kind of different," shared Penne who couldn't be happier to be home for Thanksgiving this year.
It's been over three years since a virus invaded Penne's immune system, attacking her heart and damaging one ventricle so severely she required surgery to place a "pacing" device in her chest in December of 2001. Last October, doctors determined that, while the pacemaker was doing its job, her badly damaged heart was not pumping enough blood to her vital organs and her kidneys were beginning to shut down. This prompted them to transfer her to Salt Lake City where she waited for nearly three months for an eventual heart transplant on Jan. 12 of this year.
Since then, Penne has been a model patient and survivor, succumbing to only one bout of "low grade rejection" in March, which required her to be treated with steroids to enhance her immune suppression drugs.
Upon returning home to Cut Bank earlier this summer, Penne has slowly been building her physical and mental strength, listening more to her body…and her heart.
"I get on the tread mill every day and I'm up to 18 minutes at 2.8 to 3 mph. I work my upper body with 2 lb. dumbbells and I trek up four flights of stairs four times a day," she boasts.
She and her husband, Dick, have always been pretty healthy eaters, so following her heart-healthy, low sodium diet hasn't been tough. "It's hard, though, when we go to eat out because so many people and places prepare their food with salt," she explained. "I eat a lot of salads then," she added.
"Some days I have lots of energy and other days I feel tired. I'm a long ways from being 100 percent, but compared to where I was last year, I'm in great shape," she brags. "I'm still making the mental adjustment of listening to my body, but everything considered, I'm really doing well."
Penne shared some sobering news. "Five of the people I knew at the transplant center have died. When I think of that, I consider myself very lucky and feel very fortunate, and blessed. Life for me is very different now, but it is a good different," she said philosophically.
"I'm learning to stop and smell the roses-which isn't all bad. I'm really enjoying the time I spend with my friends, family and my kids. I'm learning the importance of enjoying life, day to day, and slowing down the pace of my life," offered Penne, who described her pre-transplant self as someone who "was always going 110 mph with her hair on fire."
With the first anniversary of having her new heart fast approaching, Penne can claim she has reached her first big milestone as a transplant recipient. The next one, however, will be even more challenging.
"Right now, my immune system is weak so I can't be around or exposed to things like soil, dust, houseplants and big crowds. As I get stronger, I'll be able to return to the farm and pursue my dream of my own vineyard," explained Penne, an avid member of the Cut Bank Women of Today who now contributes to the group from the sidelines. For last week's bazaar, Penne did much of the publicity work and also helped with the bazaar, but away from the maddening, holiday crowds. While the medication she is on protects her heart from infection and rejection, it may take a lasting toll on her body.
"Many transplant patients develop cancer from the drugs within five years after their transplant. We are also susceptible to coronary artery disease, where the arteries to the heart shrivel up. If that happens, I'll need a new heart," she said matter-of-factly. "So that's the next hurdle for me…a clean bill of health at my five year check up."
The holidays weren't so happy for the Swensons last Thanksgiving and Christmas, but all that is different this year. "The turkey we had in the hospital in Salt Lake City was the worst I'd ever tasted," laughed Penne.
This Thanksgiving, though, Penne will have plenty of company to share her turkey dinner. Twelve members of her family and friends will gather around her table. "I'm making the turkey, potatoes and gravy and stuffing. They are bringing the rest," she said, something she would never have allowed in her pre-transplant days. But life is different, a good kind of different, she reminds herself.
Looking back on her experience, Penne credits the strength of her family and support of her community for seeing her through. "Dick was so strong while I was in the hospital. He was just a rock…" Kyle, their 24-year-old son, kept their farming operation running while they were away.
This Thanksgiving, Penne is thankful "to be as healthy as I am and surrounded by my family and friends." She also counts among her blessings the individual and his or her family who was willing to donate a heart. "Without it, I would've died," she states. "There is such a demand for organ donors. I realize it's hard for some people to understand it, but if they can also see it as something good coming out of the death of someone very special to them."
And for the Swenson family, this Thanksgiving also isn't just "turkey day" but also Dick and Penne's 27th anniversary. "My family and I have so many blessings to be thankful for this year," she concluded.