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A Resilient Heart

April 4, 2023

Karen Dolan, a triathlete and a self-described exercise fanatic knew something wasn't right. She experienced shortness of breath and fatigue.

Kim Dolan knew that something wasn't right. It was the fall of 2016, and the then 56-year-old pastry chef from Barrington, RI wasn't feeling like herself. The self-described "exercise fanatic," who had completed 15 triathlons and an Ironman competition, was experiencing shortness of breath and fatigue. She went swimming and found she didn't have the breath to swim more than one lap. She could no longer run, and at one point, had to stop walking in the middle of the street because she was too tired to finish crossing.

Kim Dolan

When her children came over for Christmas, Dolan had to lie down in the middle of the meal. That night, her husband noticed that her breathing sounded abnormal; the following morning, they went to the Emergency Department of Dolan's local hospital. Her heart rate was 170 and an echocardiogram showed fluid in her lungs.  An MRI confirmed the diagnosis: non-compaction cardiomyopathy, a genetic condition in which the heart becomes spongy and begins to lose function. A normal ejection fraction--the measure of the heart's ability to effectively pump blood to the body—is between 55-70 percent. Dolan's ejection fraction was less than 10 percent. She was in end stage heart failure.

"I was in shock," said Dolan. "It was clear early on that medications were not going to be effective and the only viable option for me was a heart transplant."

She was referred to Tufts Medical Center and was put on the heart transplant list in early 2017. While she was able to return home at first, Dolan soon had to stop working and exercising as her symptoms worsened.

In May 2017, Dolan had a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) implanted to help keep her heart beating until a new one became available. The LVAD was effective and her condition improved over the next several months. In late August, Dolan received a call in the middle of the night that a heart was available for her. She came to Tufts MC for the transplant, but ultimately it was determined that the donor heart was not of high enough quality for the transplant to move forward.

"That was probably the low point of the entire experience for me," said Dolan. "It was a struggle to stay positive after that disappointment."

Her frustrations were compounded two months later, when a staph infection at the LVAD site put her back in the hospital, but just before she was getting ready to be discharged, Dolan received the news she had been waiting for: a new heart was available and this one was of good quality for transplant.

The surgery took place on November 3, 2017, and everything went smoothly, as planned.

"I was sitting in a recliner the same day of the transplant," recalled Dolan. "The doctors joked that I would set a record for fastest recovery. I immediately felt the difference physically, and it was such a relief not to have any machines or wires attached to my body anymore."

Upon returning home two weeks later, Dolan began the journey back to her active lifestyle. She started out with short walks, but over the following weeks and months, she added hot yoga, spinning and finally biking to her weekly routine. Within six months of her transplant, Dolan was back to nearly the same level of physical activity as before she became sick. And she is extremely grateful to the Tufts Medical Center Cardiology and Cardiac Surgery teams for helping her get there.

"The whole staff there is so incredible," said Dolan. "I probably spent half of 2017 in the Cardiomyopathy Center on Pratt 8 and now it really feels like home—not a hospital—every time I come back to visit. I genuinely look forward to my follow-up appointments so I can go see everybody who helped save my life."

Kim Dolan

Over the next several years, Dolan was able to return to a normal life, but her itch for competitive athletics still burned. She had heard about the Transplant Games for America—a biennial athletic competition for organ and tissue recipients and living donors. The competition was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, but when Dolan saw the 2022 games were going to be held in San Diego—where her son lived—on July 30, she knew she had to participate. Dolan competed in the 5K and 20K bike races, and at the age of 62, won gold medals in both events.

"It was a pretty amazing feeling," said Dolan. "To have been through everything I've been through and to have come as far as I've come, it was incredibly rewarding."

Today, Dolan continues to exercise five or six days per week and is looking forward to getting back to her other passion: baking. And she is already thinking ahead to the summer of 2023. The Block Island Triathlon awaits.

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