Alyse (Stolp) Ornelas is a 29-year-old wife, mother of three-year-old Emaley, high school teacher, Yosemite High School alumni and as of March 2, the recipient of a transplanted heart.
At 9 p.m. on Feb. 28, the last day of “Heart Health Month,” the call came. “It’s GO TIME...sort of,” Alyse said on generosity.com. “I received ‘the call’ from Stanford hospital last night. My surgeon. . .calmly informs me that an acceptable heart offer has come through.” He also informed her there were several more tests to be done that might make the transplant a “NO GO.”
“I know I’ve had other offers in the past, but this was the first one presented to me. Of course, it’s not even a decision on whether or not to go. We grab our things, kiss our sleeping daughter goodbye, fill up the gas tank, and [husband] Michael and I were on our way. Our second hurdle: what do we tell people, our family? How do we calm our own nerves and anxiety? How do we not get our hopes up?”
Finally, on March 1, the Ornelas couple knows the donor heart is a match and surgery is scheduled for the next day. At 6:30 a.m. on March 2, the first incision is made for the transplant and after a seven-hour surgery, family receive the call that the donor heart has been successfully transplanted.
Path to a new heart
It has been a battle for the warrior named Alyse. Last October, a 23-week pregnant, Alyse checked herself into the emergency room at Clovis Community Medical Center. She was out of breath and suffering from pain in her left shoulder. While at the hospital, she was told the news no mother wants to hear - her unborn baby had died.
After two days, she was transferred to Stanford University Medical Center. There she was diagnosed with giant cell myocarditis, a rare heart disease that causes destruction of heart muscle cells.
Multiple trips from home in Clovis to Stanford followed as the heart team monitored medications and surgically placed a left ventricle assist device (LVAD) which helped her failing heart circulate her blood, The device is used as a bridge to a transplant-until a donor heart is received.
In addition to her husband, parents Becky and Bill Stolp have been there for Alyse and her family. They, too, have spent days and weeks at the hospital helping in any way they can.
Perseverance and resiliency
They have watched “her perseverance to keep going,” Becky said. “I don't know how many major life-altering things can be thrown at one individual in a span of six months before one throws in the towel and says - that's it, I give up. Alyse never ever said those words, never indicated that fact by her body language, never lost her spirit to keep going. Losing a child is major. Three times In Stanford ICU is major.”
“Stanford ICU meant Alyse was hooked up to multiple carts loaded with medicines, monitors and drains. First ICU - hooked up to a life-saving heart machine. Second ICU - placing a pump on her left ventricle, and third ICU - heart transplant. Her sternum has been ripped open twice; she has holes in her chest where chest tubes were placed for drainage, holes in other parts of her body for tubes that ran from her heart to outside her body. In addition, to her left ventricle pump, her chest held a defibrillator and a tunnel catheter. All three devices required surgery. All three - pump, defibrillator and tunnel catheter - were removed during transplant.”
“We have been so impressed by her resiliency, by her courage and her spiritual heart, even when her physical one was failing her,” said Alyse’s sister-in-law, Sarah Stolp, in a Facebook post. “It’s been an emotional journey, that isn’t done. The gift of organ donation is the gift of life. We are eternally grateful and indebted to the family of her donor.”
“I am not one concerned with getting older, but I am one who is full of hope,” Alyse posted contemplating her April 6 birthday. “Hope that this decade of my twenties just wanted to come to a close in its own adventurous way and my thirties will be my new beginnings.”
Alyse is now one of the 2,000 who receive donor hearts each year in the U.S. The heart transplant procedure has evolved from an experiment, when the first human heart was transplanted in 1967, to an established treatment for those with heart disease or a damaged heart.
“We’re trying to stomp out a lot of bugs and infections right now,” Alyse recently said. “I just had a wound vac inserted onto my incision site on my chest. And another apparatus that will be attached to me for 4-6 weeks.”
Following her release, Alyse will have to remain within a 30-minute drive of Stanford for three months for continued monitoring.
For those who wish to send a get well card, mail to Alyse Ornelas, 3787 Heritage Lane, Clovis, Ca 93619.
To assist the Ornelas family with medical expenses, a spaghetti dinner and gift basket fundraiser is being held 3-7 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, at Oakhurst Lutheran Church at the intersection of Road 426 and Black Road, across from the PG&E office. For tickets, call (559) 683-4673. To donate gift basket items, call (559) 683-6102. Donations can also be made to a special account at Wells Fargo Bank in Vons, or online at generosity.com.