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New heart doesn’t feel different

Special to the DailyJennifer Ortiz, 12, sits with her brothers and sisters at a hospital in Denver before her heart transplant surgery. Her mother says it was a struggle to get Jennifer on the heart transplant list.
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DENVER ” Jennifer Ortiz doesn’t know where her new heart came from.

It could have come from New York ” could have come from Mexico. She doesn’t know how old the person was or how the person died.

She just knows it was flown in late one night to save her life, and it’s beating inside her now.



She says this heart doesn’t feel any different than the one she grew up with. It doesn’t feel strange or foreign. She doesn’t notice a different rhythm or a different sound. No thoughts yet on the spiritual or philosophical implications of someone dying so that someone else might live.

In a year, Jennifer and her mother, Sussie Diaz, can write to the family who, for whatever reason, found themselves in the position on May 29 of both losing a loved one and giving a 12-year-old girl from Avon, Colorado ” a student at Stone Creek Charter School ” a second chance.



Jennifer doesn’t know yet what she’d say to that family ” she’s a girl of few words when talking about her transplant. She’s just happy it’s done with, that she’s out of the hospital and playing video games at her dad’s house in Denver, she said.

Jennifer had been struggling with a cough for about a month, and it finally got bad enough that her mother took to her to the emergency room on May 4. Suspecting pneumonia, doctors took an X-ray. Instead, they found an oversized heart.

This is a pretty serious condition, and she was sent by ambulance to Denver where she would go through a battery of tests and stay in the intensive care unit.



Turns out a tiny birth defect that went unnoticed for years ” and worsened little by little ” prevented the left side of the heart from pumping enough blood. The body, in all its adaptive resilience, made the right side of her heart grow twice as big and strong, enough so to pump blood for both sides.

“Once they realized what was wrong, they knew nothing could be done to fix it,” Sussie Diaz said. “She needed a new heart.”

The problem is that Jennifer couldn’t get on the transplant list because her family had no insurance. Diaz applied for Medicaid, which usually takes 45 days of bureaucratic processing. It was time the doctors said Jennifer didn’t have.

With the help of social workers in Denver and Eagle County, the Medicaid application was processed in two days. Jennifer landed on the transplant list, and it didn’t take long for a donor to come around. The surgery went well.

“We wanted to see her old heart ” it was at least three times bigger than her fist,” Diaz said. “The right side was big and thick and hard ” just like they said it would be.”

Jennifer’s been recovering for the past couple weeks and was released from the hospital on Tuesday. She had been there for more than a month.

Plenty of friends and family have been visiting, and Jennifer has good days and bad days ” some filled with a lot of smiles, other filled with sickness. She’s always been a quiet girl, but she’s been especially quiet after the surgery, Diaz said.

“I don’t know if she’s trying to hide something, but she never showed us any fear,” Diaz said. “She’s being tough for me and her dad.”

Jennifer will have to stay in Denver close to the hospital for quite a while, at least until the biggest dangers of organ rejection and infection pass. There’s a lot of medication and plenty of doctor’s visits in her future.

Meanwhile, her mother has been driving back and fourth between Denver and Avon for the past month. She has three other daughters, and two of them are staying with friends from Stone Creek so they didn’t have to miss school.

“Jennifer is in my daughter’s sixth grade class, and we were wondering why she wasn’t around,” said New New Wallace, who has been helping take care of Jennifer’s sisters. “It was crazy to hear that a beautiful and seemingly healthy 12-year-old girl could be so sick.”

Diaz had to take a leave of absence from her job at the Ritz Carlton, and medical bills have been piling up. Soon, her lease at Buffalo Ridge will expire. Her apartment has already been rented out, and she has to find a new one. If she can’t find something in a few weeks, she’ll probably move to Denver, something she doesn’t want to do after 20 years in the valley.

The family has already received three months of financial support from the Vail Valley Charitable Fund and Swift Eagle, Wallace said.

What she really needs is help finding an affordable place for her and the family to live, she said.

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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