Mia Welch lived without a heart for nearly six months. But on St. Patrick’s Day a little Irish luck was with her.
“My grandfather was 100 percent Irish,” said the Mesa 21-year-old.
That morning she was sitting with her boyfriend in her room at the Mayo Hospital in Scottsdale when she saw a helicopter land, she said.
“I was joking with him and said, ‘That’s my heart,’” Welch said. “I hadn’t seen a helicopter land there before. A little while later the doctor came in and asked me if the nurses told me the good news.”
They found her a heart.
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Welch, a graduate of McClintock High School in Tempe once danced for the Mesa Community College dance company, was diagnosed with an enlarged heart in 2010. Doctors believe that it was caused by a virus that attacked her heart, but by the time she ended up in the hospital with cardiac issues, the virus was gone.
In the fall of 2011, she went into heart failure. At the time, there wasn’t an available, appropriate heart for transplant, so Welch was given an artificial one. First “Big Blue,” a 400 pound machine, and then a smaller one, housed in an ever present backpack, did the work that Welch’s heart couldn’t do.
The constant humming became her constant companion, as the rapid “do-do-do-do-do” whooshing of the machine pumped her blood.
“It still feels weird,” she said putting her hand over her chest. Her heartbeat is much slower than the pumping of the device.
It was difficult to sleep without the white noise of the machine at first, Welch said, but the constant vibrations that shook her entire body are not missed at all.
Getting a heart transplant was never a guarantee.
“I knew I would get a heart, but I just didn’t know when,” Welch said with certainty.
Welch had been told she was to receive a heart transplant twice before, but each time it wasn’t quite right.
“When they told me this time, I knew.”
Whether it was luck of the Irish, third time’s the charm, by the grace of God or just pure fate, by 10 a.m. on St. Paddy’s Day, Mia went down for transplant prep.
By 3 a.m. on March 18, Welch had a heart pumping inside her chest again.
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Mia Welch’s life is slowly returning to a new sense of normal.
“I wanted a bubble bath, that’s what I had been waiting for,” she said with a smile. “The tubes from my device went in through my stomach and I couldn’t take a bath.”
She’s healing, and doing so at a rate faster than expected.
Welch was up and walking the day after, and off the ventilator in about three days. She left the hospital nine days after surgery. Usually, they told her, it takes about two weeks. Her latest heart test came back normal. So far, there aren’t any signs of rejection, she said.
The only visible signs of her illness are the bruise on her neck from a recent test — a healing incision that peaks above the neckline of her t-shirt — and her swollen face caused by steroids. And soon, even those will fade.
She starts cardiac rehab in a couple weeks, and after rehab, she should be able to dance again.
On Friday, Welch planned to attend her niece and nephew’s basketball game, the first such event in a very long time.
“Just little things — I don’t have to have to push a button to get up,” she said. “I can go out and visit. It’s just life—so many people take it for granted.”
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Despite able to leave the hospital, it’s also one of the places she still returns to.
“There are three guys who are still waiting, who still have artificial hearts,” she said.
And going through it with someone else who understands makes it easier, she said.
The person who was always there for her was Carmen, and they waited together, Welch said. Carmen was the first person she met who was in the same situation. Like Welch, there were two disappointments while waiting for a heart.
The two spent New Year’s Eve together this year, watching the ball drop on TV, Welch said.
“We planned on going to New York City for New Years when we could,” Welch said.
But while Welch had another chance, Carmen did not. She passed away unexpectedly a few weeks ago from a condition completely unrelated to her heart, Welch said.
It was Carmen who taught her to think, “one day at a time.” During Welch’s time in the hospital, she became more self-reflective by keeping a journal and praying.
“You don’t realize how blessed you are until you almost have it taken away from you,” Welch said. “You never think you’re going to be that person — that person who gets sick.
“You wonder why this happened to you. I was in school; I was dancing; I didn’t do drugs. But I’ve learned to let it go — I don’t struggle with ‘why’ anymore. I was strong enough to go through it, and that’s why. So many other people are going through the same thing.”
The hardest part of her time in the hospital was not knowing what the next day would bring, she said. And while it would have been easy to be depressed, she wasn’t ready to give up.
“I had to learn to give what I wanted to get,” she said. “I couldn’t rely on people to make me laugh; I had to make them laugh.”
Someday, Welch plans to return to school and dance. Eventually, when the right amount of time has passed, she plans to try contacting the family of her donor.
“I don’t know how to thank someone for that, but I definitely want to meet them,” she said.
Her recovery is quicker than expected, but even making plans for the future is new again.
“I had to slow myself down,” she said. “I’m taking one day at a time. I’m just living life.”
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