Brittany Stahl of Hillsborough, New Jersey, was dealing with plenty of stress when she felt tired and short of breath in 2019. “I thought it was probably bronchitis.” When breathing became so difficult that she struggled to do household chores or even lie flat, she sought urgent care for her presumed infection. But a chest X-ray and EKG (electrocardiogram) suggested a more concerning possibility: heart trouble.
Further tests revealed she had cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure—related conditions in which the heart muscle isn’t able to pump enough blood to meet the body’s demands. “I was shocked,” Brittany says.
She had an idea of what might be in store. In 1991, her father had received a heart transplant at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. He, too, had developed cardiomyopathy when he was about her age. “At the time, they thought the cause was viral,” she recalls. “Today, we have genetic testing that can tell you more.”
Further testing revealed that the cardiomyopathy was indeed inherited. “If someone in your family needed a heart transplant and you have the genetic mutation, chances are high that you’ll also develop similar heart disease and the heart will become progressively weaker,” says Saurabh Kapoor, MD, an advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist with Newark Beth Israel Medical Center Heart Transplant and Advanced Heart Failure Treatment Program. “If you’re not monitored and treated, eventually the heart deteriorates and you end up in the hospital with heart failure.”
Brittany was no stranger to hospitals. At 13, she developed thyroid cancer, underwent surgery to remove the gland and received radiation therapy. Later in life, she became a cardiac nurse, inspired by her father’s experience. Then, when she was 33, precancerous polyps were found in her colon and had to be removed.
Yet while she regularly saw doctors to follow up on her previous diagnoses, she neglected to get more general annual checkups. “I’m a big believer in preventive screenings,” she says. “Unfortunately, I didn’t follow my own advice.” As a result, she didn’t investigate additional signs of trouble, such as her heart pounding between 130 and 160 beats per minute even when she was lying down. “That’s a normal heart rate when you exercise,” Dr. Kapoor says on Newark Beth Israel. “But if it’s that fast at rest, it can indicate the heart is very weak and needs to pump faster to provide blood to the body.”
In August 2019, Brittany had to be admitted to Newark Beth Israel Medical Center because her heart was so weak that medication could no longer help. “I was getting sicker and sicker really fast,” she says. “They suggested I be put on the heart transplant waiting list. I trusted them because of my father’s experience and never considered going anywhere else.”
Soon, in October 2019, word came that she had a donor. “I think everybody on the floor was crying,” Brittany says, “the staff, the nurses, even the cleaning people and the people who brought my food. They had be come like family.”
Margarita Camacho, MD, Surgical Director of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center’s Heart Transplant and Mechanical Assist Device (LVAD) Program, performed the heart transplant late that night. “She was sweet and amazing,” Brittany says.
Today, having survived heart transplantation and recovery, Brittany strongly advocates organ donation, along with preventive screening and regular checkups. Because of her experience, several relatives on her father’s side have been diagnosed with familial cardiomyopathy. “It’s of paramount importance that at-risk families be screened,” Newark Beth Israel’s Dr. Kapoor says. “In some cases, we can treat with medication to slow progression before damage becomes significant.”
“I know I’m meant to be here for my son. And if my going through this would save a family member, I’d do it all over again.”