Woman still waiting on transplants

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 7, 2003

After four months, an Ironton woman's waiting game continues in a Columbus hospital.

Michelle "Shelley" Damron Vulhop, 32, is still in The Ohio State University Medical Center waiting for a double-lung and heart transplant. After being 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. 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.

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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, for which she is waiting, will probably be the first heart and double-lung transplant performed at the OSU Medical Center, she said.

"I'm holding my own, waiting patiently," Vulhop said.

Vulhop only weighed 84 pounds when she entered the hospital, but she now weighs 95 pounds because of hospital staff efforts to build up her weight. She will remain in the hospital until the surgery is performed.

While her hospital stay has been quite scary, cards from well-wishers from her hometown have been a comfort, as well as some special visitors. Ohio State University football players have been regular visitors, and she has become particularly close to defensive end Will Smith.

"He's a huge teddy bear," she said with a laugh. "He's really kind. He asks all sorts of questions about how I'll make it because I'm so little."

Another mainstay has been a "wellness dog ," a poodle named Ricky, who visits several patients at the hospital.

"He puts his paws up on the bed and climbs in the bed with me," she said.

Vulhop not only has those visitors, regular visits from hometown friends and family, but her mother Rachel and fiance Larry Kinsler have taken unpaid leaves from their jobs to stay with her in Columbus. She has also made several friends in the hospital such as staff members and other patients, some who have seen happy endings to their situations.

"A boy named Kenny got a heart, and he was really emotional," she said. "He was in good spirits, but the medications make you emotional. He was saying he was so emotional because he got a woman's heart."

However, Vulhop has had to deal with tragedy from her hospital room. Cindy Kaye Hewitt Bostick, her best friend in school, died Sept. 2, the same day Bostick's son Dustin was born. Over the years, the two had lost touch, but managed to get back in contact with each other.

"I was heartbroken because I couldn't leave for the funeral," Vulhop said. "I thought, 'Gosh, I hope the family knows I'm up here.' It bothered me badly. She was a very good person who always saw the good side of someone rather than the bad.

"She wanted a baby so badly. I'm sure (her son) will know about his mommy and how she was such a good person."

The search for organs for Vulhop has been a long one. For her to receive new organs, she said, they must be the perfect size and the tissue must match hers, she said. The organs cannot undergo trauma, so it cannot be from someone who has underwent chest impact. In the case of a heart, it cannot be one that has stopped.

Hospital staff members conduct powwows weekly to make sure the transplant is properly coordinated when it happens, Vulhop said. At any moment, someone could burst into her room telling her she has to be prepped for surgery.

Her time in the hospital has not been easy on her family, particularly her mother and fiance. Her mother has time off through the Family Medical Leave Act, but her fiance needing more time off to be with her could eventually cause him to have to choose between being with her or his job, she said. He is prepared to choose her if that happens, she said.

Charlotte Abrams, Vulhop's cousin, said the family still has a fund set up at City National Bank. The Laidback bar was planning a charity run for her, but it was cancelled because of rain, she said. The family continues to have concerns about expenses, and Abrams, a Lawrence County Joint Vocational School employee, said she will even try to conduct her own fundraisers to bring money straight to her family.

Abrams is continually amazed by Vulhop's upbeat attitude while in the hospital. She is also impressed by Vulhop's desire to become an activist for organ donation.

"I'm amazed, amazed," she said. "I don't know if I could do it in her shoes. I know she's scared, but she will only say that she's worried."

"Pray for her; pray that she gets her donor."

Until then, Vulhop's days continue to be long ones.

"I have my bad days, but I try not to dwell on them," she said. "I cry, but then that makes the doctors nervous. It will happen when it happens. I can't control it."

Vulhop encouraged those in situations similar to hers to keep fighting.

"God works in his own ways. If you have a problem, He will fix it. If not, He will make sure you never have to suffer again. He will not let us go before it's our time. If it's our time, then it's our time."

To send cards or letters to Vulhop, her address is: Ohio State University Hospital, Rhodes Hall, Room 852, 410 West 10th Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43210-1228.