Amazing Stories: Cherie Aimée
The cardiac specialists at NewYork-Presbyterian give a cancer survivor a second chance at life with a new heart.
Cherie Aimée was out of the woods. The 35-year-old branding consultant and author was two years removed from her initial Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. In that time, she underwent six months of treatment and was finally cancer-free.
“Eight months after finishing treatment, I started having severe shortness of breath. That lasted about three weeks before I went into cardiac arrest,” Cherie remembers. Though Cherie had a heart rhythm abnormality, the condition was medically managed and not believed to be the cause of her heart issue initially.
Cherie’s husband rushed her to the emergency department of their local hospital in Danbury, Conn. She suffered cardiac arrest in his arms a few minutes after arrival. The doctors immediately began CPR. Cherie was not responsive.
“My symptoms went from difficulty breathing to complaining that my arms felt heavy. That’s when my husband immediately put me in the car and rushed me to the emergency room. Not long after arriving, I flatlined,” she says. According to Cherie, despite calling her time of death, emergency department physicians continued to perform CPR for more than 90 minutes until the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine could take over the function for her failing heart.
ECMO is a life-saving device for patients with cardiac or respiratory failure that pumps and oxygenates blood outside of the body. The device allows the heart and lungs to recuperate while doctors devise a long-term treatment plan for patients.
“It was at that point the doctors at my local hospital determined they could not do anything else to save me. Fortunately, one of the doctors had a connection at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center,” Cherie says.
When Cherie arrived at NewYork-Presbyterian, she was immediately rushed into surgery, where Hiroo Takayama, MD, Ph.D., tried to determine what caused this young and seemingly healthy woman’s heart to stop. Unable to get her heart restarted, Dr. Takayama implanted a CentriMag left and right ventricular assist system to perform the duties of her failing heart. The Centrimag is an artificial heart pump that is placed at the patient’s bedside and is connected to tubes inserted directly into the heart. Having the CentriMag meant Cherie would have to remain in the hospital. She was placed in a medically induced coma while Dr. Takayama and his team determined what her best options were.
“I stayed on life-support, in and out of a coma, for three months. The surgeons eventually removed the Centrimag and implanted me with a portable LVAD (left ventricular assist device), and I was able to go home after a few weeks of rehabilitation. I was in the hospital for a total of four months from the day of my cardiac arrest,” she recalls.
Cherie lived with the implanted LVAD for almost five years, until she was medically eligible for a heart transplant.
“Because of my cancer diagnosis and treatment, I had to wait the five years post-remission for the transplant,” she says. Many factors impact if or when a person becomes eligible for transplant surgery. Transplantation is often deferred for underlying medical conditions, such as cancer, because of the immunosuppressant therapy given after heart transplant.
“During those years on the LVAD, my heart began improving. There were talks of removing the LVAD, but the day before the surgery, the doctors determined it wasn’t the best decision,” she says. “They were very thorough about not explanting the LVAD, which turned out to be the best decision.”
“In the four and a half to five years with the LVAD, I had the opportunity to heal and get my life together. I was able to do hiking and yoga — my favorite activities. Staying active and getting physically fit strengthened my body and mind, for my heart transplant,” she adds. “It was the bridge that kept me alive.”
In October 2014, Dr. Takayama and Yoshifumi Naka, MD, Ph.D., performed heart transplant surgery on Cherie. Post-surgical testing of her old heart found the heart was severely damaged and could not have lasted without assistance.
“I feel like a brand new person,” Cherie exclaims. “I’ve created a new normal for myself as I rebuild my body. But it all works. I’m so grateful to be alive and as healthy as I am. Sometimes, when I was on the LVAD, it was hard not knowing what each day was going to bring — but it turned out to be the biggest gift. Living on the LVAD taught me how to live in the present moment and to be grateful for every second of life and every breath I take. Now, with the heart transplant behind me, I’m traveling and living life from a whole new perspective.”
In the years since the surgery, Cherie has become active in NewYork-Presbyterian’s patient-family advisory council, which is a group of patients and their family members, doctors, and staff who work together to enhance the way NewYork-Presbyterian delivers care. She’s also a board member for the Transplant Forum at Columbia University Medical Center.
“The care at NewYork-Presbyterian is beyond exceptional. The way every member of this community took me under their wing as their daughter, sister, friend, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in my life,” she says. “They saved my life. They kept me going. They kept my emotional and physical state of health intact and are now allowing me to thrive with continued support. There are no words for that.”