GLENVIEW – December 3rd marked the 50th anniversary of the first adult human heart transplant in a Cape Town hospital, and today an estimated 3,000 Americans receive heart transplants each year. Glenview mom Maureen Pekosh is one of them.
Pekosh was an athletic, energetic mother to three equally athletic and energetic children when one day in 2011, while vacationing in Niagara Falls with her family, she found herself short of breath and uncharacteristically fatigued.
“I couldn’t keep up with the group,” said Pekosh, now 59. “It panicked my husband and kids.”
Back home, Pekosh was diagnosed with heart failure, then suffered a stroke two weeks later in the shower.
“I woke up that night restrained in a hospital bed, breathing through an air tube, and questioning why I was there,” said Pekosh. “I was in a state of shock.”
Pekosh underwent a successful heart transplant at the University of Chicago Medical Center seven years ago. And while recovering at Glenbrook Hospital, feeling frightened, isolated and alone, Pekosh attended her first WomanHeart meeting. Organized by the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, WomanHeart is made up of volunteer heart disease survivors who hold monthly gatherings to provide emotional support, practical advice and camaraderie with other “heart sisters” facing a similar prognosis. WomanHeart regularly hosts guest speakers including geneticists, pharmacists, social workers and exercise coaches.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., accounting for approximately 1 in every 4 female deaths.
“I wanted to find a group of people with whom I could feel somewhat normal again,” said Pekosh. “Doctors understand a patient’s physical situation, but can’t relate to their mental and emotional state of mind.”
After regularly attending WomanHeart meetings, Pekosh summoned the courage to visit The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for a diagnosis and treatment, eventually returning for a second time to receive a pacemaker and begin the yearlong process of waiting for a heart donor and prepping for transplant surgery at the University of Chicago in April 2013.
“Meeting all these other women who had been through so much, but were still laughing at things and enjoying life, helped me see I could do this, too,” said Pekosh.
Today, after a long road back to health, Pekosh takes 31 pills a day and undergoes regular blood draws to ensure her transplanted heart continues to do its job. While her new heart is stable, the anti-rejection medications she takes have caused kidney failure and metabolic bone disease. Her pre-surgery stroke left her with a drop foot and limited left shoulder mobility.
“I had a heart transplant after suffering a stroke,” said Pekosh. “When I first heard those terms, I didn’t think I was brave or strong enough to survive either one.”
And while Pekosh can no longer run, cycle and play tennis the way she once did, she’s shifted her energy to helping other women live with heart disease. After receiving special training back at The Mayo Clinic, Pekosh is now a WomanHeart Champion, working with three women who have managed WomanHeart’s evening meetings at Glenbrook Hospital, Condell Advocate Hospital and Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, for several years.
“I have come this far, others can overcome whatever they’re facing and not just survive, but thrive,” said Pekosh.
In addition to facilitating WomanHeart meetings and counseling newly diagnosed women with heart disease, Pekosh also volunteers for studies to help researchers understand life with physical challenges. She credits her ability to walk again to an 18-week research study she participated in at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
As an advocate, counselor, and champion of women with heart disease, Pekosh is eager to raise awareness of its symptoms, which often go undetected.
“There’s an awareness missing … many women do not know the signs of heart disease or stroke,” said Pekosh. “I was seemingly healthy one day, and short of breath another. I never had a day of chest pain, yet my heart needed to be replaced.”
For more information, visit www.womenheart.org.