Saturday, July 16, 2016

Heart transplant survivor Christina Cinca tells her story

Christina Cinca cradled the 8 ounce, fist sized object. She held in her hands the very heart that had been pumping blood inside her body hours earlier.

The Diagnosis

Christina Cinca is a sophomore at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Melbourne, Florida. When Cinca was 7 years old she was diagnosed with Restrictive Cardiomyopathy. According to Medscape, RCM is a heart condition in which the walls are rigid, and the heart is restricted from stretching and filling with blood properly. Cinca said her pediatrician discovered she had an irregular heartbeat and suggested further testing.
“My pediatrician suggested we go to a doctor in Orlando,” Cinca said. “He did a bunch of tests and told us it was something more serious than they initially thought. Ever since then, I’ve been going to University of Florida Health Shands Hospital with Doctor Fricker. He was the one who put things in perspective for us. He made us pay attention to my condition to ensure it didn’t get worse.”
Cinca’s heart issues propelled her to find other passions instead of sports.
“There were little things I could not do,” Cinca said. “I couldn’t run or do much physical activity without getting tired. I felt fatigued, short of breath. It was hard in fifth and sixth grade during P.E. to watch everyone play sports when I couldn’t do that stuff. That’s where I found my passion for acting and singing.”

The List

As Cinca’s health issues persisted, her doctors became concerned. Her cardiologist placed her on the heart transplant list. Cinca said her doctors worked her to ensure she would receive the transplant she needed.
“Around age 12, my doctors started talking to me about the list,” Cinca said. “The list is how they rank you for how badly you need the transplant. At first I was towards the bottom. It goes 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3A. I was around 2B to 3A. When you’re around 1A and in urgent need of a transplant, you either have to be in the hospital or on a certain kind of medicine. I was never in the hospital for a long amount of time or on the medicine. So my doctors had to petition to the board.”
Cinca said she was initially fearful of being selected for the transplant, but is now grateful for the precautionary measure by her doctors.
“The first time they told me I was going on the transplant list I started crying,” Cinca said. “When the hospital has a heart available, they call you, so I was always afraid of the phone ringing. Everytime my mom’s phone rang, I thought, ‘Is this it; are they calling for me for the transplant?’. It was hard for everybody. I didn’t understand at the time, but it was a good decision they made.”

The Practice Run

Cinca ran into unforeseen issues the first time she received a call for a transplant.
“On July 1, 2014, they called me and said they had a heart ready,” Cinca said. “My family and I drove up around 1:30 in the afternoon. I had kind of been sick with what I thought was a cold that wouldn’t go away. We got up there and they did tests on me to ensure I was ready to receive the heart, and if it would be the right one for my body.
“After the test results came back, they told me I had pneumonia and wasn’t ready to receive it. That was rough. It was a blessing in a way because I knew the routine and what I should expect. But at the same it was crushing. I thought it was my moment, but it wasn’t.”

The Call

According to the Mayo Clinic, the overall survival rate for a heart transplant surgery is 88 percent after one year and about 75 percent after five years. Cinca was 13 years old—in eighth grade when she finally received a new heart.
“I got my transplant on September 24, 2014,” Cinca said. “They called me at 5:30 in the morning. I was going to go back to school that day to take a test. My mom came into my room and I thought I was waking up to go to school.
She said, ‘Christina, you got the call.’”
Cinca said she experienced a rollercoaster of emotions on the day of the surgery.
“I didn’t cry at first; it hadn’t really registered,” Cinca said. “The last friend I saw was a boy I had gone to school with forever. When I saw him, he came out of his house and hugged me and told me I would do great. I started balling.
On the car ride there I started to process that this was actually happening and my life was about to change. It was such a mixture of emotions going through my head.”
Although Cinca said she was not too fearful before the surgery, she had some doubts.
“When I was younger I had a friend who had a similar heart problem as me,” Cinca said. “She was in the hospital for a while and she ended up actually passing away. Thinking about that made me nervous.
“Also, the cardiologist I had been going to for years wasn’t there for the procedure because he was on vacation. He wouldn’t be the one doing the surgery, but he’s the one who knows everything about me. It felt like he was a part of my family, so that was nerve wracking not having him.
You never know, but you just have to trust in your doctors. All you can do is trust everything will turn out well and be good.”

The Creepy Cool

Cinca’s surgery was successful. Doctors gave her the opportunity to see and hold her former heart after she was weaned off the drugs.
“I got to touch my own heart,” Cinca said. “The concept is so bizarre–they took my heart out of me and put somebody else’s inside of me. They brought it in a jar on ice and I put on gloves and touched it. I’m glad I got to experience that moment because I am one of the few to ever be able to do that.”
Cinca said analyzing her heart and having her doctor explain the irregularities with it helped her to better understand her condition.
“One of the atriums was larger than the other,” Cinca said. “They showed me and I could feel what was wrong with it. There was a part of it that was so much thicker than it should be; the tube where blood was supposed to get through was so small. I realized how necessary my surgery was.”

The Recovery

Cinca was in the hospital for 15 days after surgery.
“The first couple days after the surgery I do not remember because I was heavily drugged,” Cinca said. “After, I was surprised at the recovery process. They tried to get me out of bed the first day I was awake. They got me up and walking and we did different exercises. It was weird because I hadn’t been outside in forever. I felt like I was confined in that place; I was in my own world. Life was going on outside and here I was stuck in the hospital. ”
After Cinca left the hospital, she waited until January to return back to school. It took six months for her to fully physically recover.
“I had to wear a mask when my friends came into my room or when I went out into crowded public places,” Cinca said. “People asked if I had ebola or a contagious virus. I wasn’t allowed to lift heavy things for sixth months.”

The Survivor’s Guilt

Cinca’s heart came from a 22-year-old girl from Mississippi. Cinca said she will never be fully recovered mentally from the fact she got her heart from a girl who passed away.
“Physically, I can build up my stamina again,” Cinca said. “Sometimes I forget I’m allowed to run. I’m allowed to walk on the beach and play sports. I don’t get tired. Mentally, there is a constant battle of survivor’s guilt. She died, and I am here. We wrote to her family, but they didn’t answer. That’s their choice. We understand. Sometimes I feel like I’m not living my life well enough. I have to live up to this person who died; I took [her] heart.”
Cinca said this experience made her realize life is short and she needs to appreciate the time she has.
“You have to make the most out of every single day,” Cinca said. “You don’t know what could happen to you or your family. In the world we live in today, everything is so unexpected. Live life to the fullest, as cliche as it sounds.”

This story was written at Indiana University High School Journalism Institute. It's published on the HSJI website.