Woman waiting on heart, lung transplants

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 26, 2003

Michelle "Shelley" Damron Vulhop wants to sit on a Myrtle Beach balcony with her fianc and watch the ocean tides and the sunset.

But, she cannot do this until her waiting game is over.

For more than a month, the 32-year-old Ironton woman has been in Ohio State University Hospital waiting for a double-lung and heart transplant.

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She was born with a ventricular septum with an inverted heart valve. She had surgery at Children's Hospital in Columbus when she was 4 years old, in which the valve was banded, but her heart could not be repaired. She was not expected to reach her late 20s, but has nevertheless survived much longer than most have expected.

Over the years, her heart became weaker with congestive heart failure, and she was diagnosed six years ago with pulmonary hypertension. The pressure on her heart has weakened her lungs, causing the need for the double-lung transplant. She has been on the transplant list off and on for five years.

This transplant will probably be the first heart and double-lung transplant performed at the OSU medical center, she said.

A friend she made at the hospital recently received a heart and Vulhop received his private room after this man told the nurses that he wanted her to receive it. Since her arrival, Vulhop said she has seen at least nine people receive hearts. She believes that she is in good hands with her physicians at OSU who have worked with her for the past five years. She has lost a significant amount of weight, but the hospital staff is working with her to help build her weight back up. However, she still weighs less than 90 pounds.

"We'll pray for the best and let God do the rest. It's all we can do," Vulhop said.

Vulhop will remain in the hospital until the transplant is performed. Doing so will improve her chances of actually getting it, she said. Until then, she has the support of various friends and family members who come to visit her and her mother Rachel Vulhop and fiance Larry Kinsler who have taken unpaid leaves from their jobs to stay with her in Columbus.

Vulhop's mother is a former River Valley Health Systems EKG technician who saved up five months of vacation time because she was anticipating her daughter's transplant. However, the hospital shut down. Rachel Vulhop is owed this vacation time and a recent court ruling has given her first priority in receiving it. But, she has not received this yet.

Kinsler's, employer, the Liebert Corp., is not required to give him time off because he and Vulhop are not married yet,. However, the company decided to let him take the leave.

Vulhop and Kinsler have been together for 13 years, and while they are at home, Kinsler goes to work during the day, then cooks, cleans and helps prepare her medicine when he returns home. Kinsler could have left her, and many people with a seriously ill significant other do so, Vulhop said. However, he has stayed by her side.

"I just love him; I don't know what I would do without him," she said.

Vulhop is a 1990 graduate of Rock Hill High School. Because she was frequently sick and did not get to attend school as much as other children, she did not have the opportunity to get involved with many things in school. Kinsler and Vulhop have not set a wedding date yet, Vulhop said. Expenses will be high after the surgery, and she does not want to get her hopes up.

"But, I don't want to give up either," she said.

The fact that the organs will come from someone who has recently died is something that does not sit well with Vulhop. Because of her small size, the organs may have to come from an 11- to 12-year-old child, which she said bothers her badly.

"Someone will have to pass away to give me life," she said.

"It's not easy for donor families, but I'm thankful, even if it doesn't go to me."

Vulhop said she often discusses the importance of organ donation with others. She once knew of a young boy whose final wish was to have his organs donated. Five people's lives were saved as a result. She often sees the thankful families in the hospital of those who have received the transplants.

Her family, she said, is one reason why she wants to live.

Besides her trip to Myrtle Beach, a place where she has not been able to visit for several years because of her health, Vulhop said she looks forward to being at home with her family and friends -- including one furry one and one feathered one.

Her cat of 15 years, Boo Boo and parakeet Puffer have been in the car of a nearby friend during her stay.

"Puffer talks," she said. "She says, 'Pretty girl', 'I love you', and 'Love Puffer'," she said.

To help with expenses from Vulhop's hospital stay, Lana Miller, one of Vulhop's aunts, has set up a fund at National City Bank.

"She's a sweetheart," Miller said. "She never gets down or says 'poor me.'"

"She's holding up well. She's a fighter. She doesn't get down much and she has a good outlook. She's not the kind of person to ask for anything."

"I'll appreciate anything, even if it's a card or prayer," Vulhop said.