A heart and lung transplant was Karla Grantz Hunsbarger's only chance for life.
By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
HUBBARD -- It's so far, so good for Karla Grantz Hunsbarger nearly two weeks after undergoing a heart and lung transplant at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Hunsbarger, of Hubbard, remained in critical condition Sunday in the cardiac thoracic intensive care unit.
She is having some difficulties, particularly with her new lungs, and was placed on a ventilator last week to assist her in breathing.
But on the whole, she is doing very well, her mother, Roberta Grantz of Hubbard, said Sunday. She added that the doctors are taking her off the ventilator periodically, trying to wean her off it.
For Hunsbarger, the delicate operation was not an option. It was her only chance for survival, her mother said.
Hunsbarger was not able to be interviewed, but family members told of her ordeal and positive attitude going into the operation.
Waiting for life-saving organs is terrible, her mother said.
She had a call about a month ago, but it didn't work out. Finally, suitable organs were donated from the Chicago area, giving Hunsbarger her chance at life.
"If everything works out, I will awaken with a change of heart and a new breath of fresh air," she said to family members just before being anesthetized and undergoing the transplants Aug. 21.
What happened: Primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH) had ravaged Hunsbarger's heart and lungs over the past 2 1/2 years.
PPH is a relatively rare disease that primarily strikes women between ages 20 and 40.
Hunsbarger, 35, a 1983 graduate of Hubbard High School and a graduate of Youngstown State University, was diagnosed at age 33, shortly after the birth of her son, Donald Joseph Jr. (D.J.), in March 1999.
She became short of breath, was always tired and never felt well. She missed time from her job as a medical technician in the Microbiology Department at Jameson Memorial Hospital in New Castle, Pa., and eventually went on permanent disability.
The cause of PPH is unknown. However, doctors know that it develops as a response to narrowing of arteries that carry blood to the lungs. As a result of the increased work load, the right side of the heart becomes enlarged, and eventually, heart failure occurs.
At first she was treated with drugs through an IV in her chest. She had to avoid physical and emotional stress and could not lift even her son. Eventually, she was put on oxygen 24 hours a day to assist her breathing.
Husband is hero: After the initial diagnosis, family members created a schedule to take care of Hunsbarger and D.J. while her husband was at work.
The real hero, family members said, is her husband, who assumed the roles of caregiver, housekeeper, clothes washer and shopper, as well as husband, father and moneymaker.
Hunsbarger's health worsened and more tests revealed that the left side of her heart also was enlarged and her lungs had been damaged as a result of the lack of blood flow.
At that point, she was moved up in priority on the transplant list. She had been on the list for a lung for about two years, Grantz said, and was moved on to the lung/heart list in February or March of this year.
Grantz and her husband, Hervey,and Hunsbarger's husband are staying in Pittsburgh to be near their daughter and wife.
"Each day we see her better, we are better," Grantz said.
If there are no serious complications, Hunsbarger could be home in three or four months. She will stay at the hospital for several weeks and then in the hospital's family house for another several weeks from which she will go to treatment every day, Grantz said.
Expenses: The costs facing the Hunsbargers are enormous. While insurance is paying for most of the transplant costs, which could end up being a million dollars, it will pay only $10,000 toward other charges, which have already reached $170,000.
Also, there will be the expenses of the anti-rejection drugs, which could be up to $1,000 a month, and living in Pittsburgh for a couple of months, Grantz said.
Family and friends have organized a golf outing Sept. 29 at Bedford Trails in Lowellville to raise money toward medical expenses.
The cost is $50 per person or $200 for a team. The format is a scramble. People interested in participating may call Joe Hunsbarger at (330) 746-6100 or (330) 501-0284 or contact him at 1111 Poland Ave.
Also, the family has had a garage sale and is selling candy bars. People have been marvelous as they learned about Karla, her mother said.
Anybody wishing to help the Hunsbargers with their expenses can send a check or money order to the Karla Hunsbarger Transplant Fund at Second National Bank, 108 Main Ave. S.W., Warren 44481 or any office of National City Bank.
Also, donations can be sent to the National Transplant Assistance Fund, 3475 West Chester Pike Suite 230, Newton Square, Pa. 19073.
Karla is a very loving person, her mother said. She went through all of this without feeling sorry for herself or complaining.
"I think they have done something miraculous for her and for us. They have given her a chance at life, to be able to play with her child and do things and have a family again," Grantz said.
Even D.J. seems to understand what's going on.
Once, he crawled up onto his mother's lap and pointed to her heart and said, "Mamma's heart broke?"
Now, said his grandmother, D.J. is telling everybody, "Mommy got new heart, got new lungs. All better."