Months after Bel Air resident Carolyn Kramer gave birth to her third child, she said she felt unusual.
The mother of three, now 66, began experiencing flu-like systems, her body was swollen, she gained several pounds but had little appetite, and her heartbeat had accelerated so fast and so hard that at night, she said, her bed moved.
“I went from giving birth — from being happy and healthy — to ‘Oh, there’s something not quite right,’ ” she said. It made nursing difficult.
“I literally could not hold the baby. I would have to lay her on a table and cradle her. … I was afraid I would drop her,” she said.
Her heart was failing. Then 33, Kramer was told little could be done — and that she had six months to live.
Doctors at Johns Hopkins Medical Center diagnosed her with postpartum cardiomyopathy, a rare form of heart failure that occurs during the last months of pregnancy or the months after birth. They said they had one option, an experimental one.
They could give her a new heart.
“I was still trying to wrap my head around ‘What does this mean?’ much less, ‘How are they going to do this?’ ” she said.
But on May 29, 1985, Kramer became just the 27th person to receive a heart transplant from Hopkins.
On Tuesday, she’ll celebrate 33 years — half her life — with her donor's heart. She is now one of the longest-living heart transplant patients in the nation.
“It’s a bittersweet time. … I’m choked up now,” she said Friday. “To come from a time when transplantation of hearts was experimental, to 33 years later having been able to watch my family grow up and raise families of their own is just a blessing.”
But the process wasn’t simple. The first year after the transplant was grueling, she said. Kramer’s body went into rejection and she experienced seizures, infections and different health conditions in response to certain medications.
“We were all learning together,” she said. “They had no real expectations because they had no data.”
She spent the first six months of post-transplant recovery in the hospital, which meant she only saw her children for an hour once a week. Her youngest daughter, she said, didn’t recognize her.
Hopkins professor of cardiac surgery Dr. Bill Baumgartner, 71, known to many patients as “Dr. B.,” took care of Kramer after her surgery, and said the rejection seemed unremitting.
“We used every potential medication we could to stop it, and she got complications from each medication,” he said. “We sort of said, ‘We don't have another drug to give you.’ ”
Two days before Christmas that year, doctors decided that they would stop treatment for two weeks, allowing Kramer to spend time with family. Dr. Baumgartner recalled that when she returned, test results showed improvement.
“Something worked,” he said.
From then, Kramer finally felt the heart was hers to keep.
“I think that I just had a lot of people of good faith praying for me. Whatever it was, it was good juju,” she said.
Kramer has not had an instance of rejection since and is only required to take a medication for her immune system, she said.
Baumgartner called Kramer’s story “the best part of being a physician.”
“Whether you do transplants or take care of patients as a family practitioner, it’s a very gratifying field, but then getting to know patients and following them and getting to see their kids getting married and [have] grandkids, it’s just a very good feeling kind of story,” he said.
And luckily, organ transplants are no longer experimental, Baumgartner said.
Within the past 30 years, there have been nearly 70,000 heart transplants in the United States, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. A small fraction — 926 — have been performed in Maryland.
Survival rates are also up, according to Baumgartner. But the supply of organs has not met the demand. In 2015, more than 120,000 people were on the waiting list for organs — heart and other types — but only about 31,000 transplants were performed.
Since Kramer’s transplant, both she and Baumgartner have advocated and raised awareness for organ donation through events and fundraising.
Kramer said she realizes that for some there is fear or stigma about being a donor, but “if you can save a person’s life by donating your organs that you're not going to be using, what greater gift can there be?” she asked.
After all, Kramer is healthy, living proof. She doesn’t know anything about her donor, but knows they had a good heart. She tries to live her life in a way that would honor them, she said.
“The heart continues to do superbly. It’s old age that’s starting to get me,” she said with a laugh, referring to her arthritis.
“At least I’m here ... living long and large enough to have those aches.”