Even at her sickest, Juana Hernandez believed in helping her family and community. With her donor's kidney, she has much more energy to continue serving those around her.
A rare heart disease stole Tracy's dreams and almost her life -- until a generous donor gave her a miracle -- a heart and a second chance at life.
When she was growing up, Tracy’s parents were her heroes. They were bodybuilders, and she wanted to be just like them. Her dream had to change, though, after her dad got sick. He was diagnosed with a heart disease called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), which meant he had to stop bodybuilding. When Tracy was 12 years old, she was tested and learned that she also had HCM. Her cardiologist told her that she shouldn’t be scared, but that every two years, she would need to have an echocardiogram, and that she could do anything she wanted to – except become a bodybuilder.
Tracy took the doctor’s words seriously and did everything else she wanted to. As a kid, she was an avid water skier and wakeboarder. In college, she played recreational racquetball, tennis, and volleyball. In her thirties, she devoted herself to aerobics and dance, and tried out skydiving. And in her forties, she did hardcore workouts up to six days a week. But when she was 43, her doctor told her to “stop everything,” and that she was “playing Russian roulette” with her life. That was not what she expected to hear.
After Tracy’s doctor gave her this unexpected reality check, Tracy did start to see a difference in her health. By the time she was 44, her doctor had to insert a pacemaker with an ICD (implantable cardioverter-defibrillator). Not only was she forced to slow her activities, but she learned that her heart was showing scarring. Over the months, she grew more tired. By the spring of 2018, when she was 47, she was experiencing heart failure. It was time to consider a heart transplant.
Tracy’s time on the transplant waiting list wasn’t easy. Bloodwork showed that Tracy’s body had 100% antibodies. That meant that her odds of finding a matching heart were lower than 0.1%. Her doctors knew that if she were going to find a compatible organ, her antibody level had to decrease. They began plasmapheresis therapy. Tracy shares, “I went through more rounds of plasmapheresis than I could count. Twice I ended up in the ICU due to allergic reactions.” At her sickest, Tracy was exhausted by the simple act of standing up, and when she would cross a room, she would have to stop to catch her breath. To leave her home, she had to use a walker or wheelchair.
As physically taxing as her experience was, it was just as emotionally taxing. Especially in the beginning, Tracy was overwhelmed with worry – not for herself, but for her husband and children. “I was scared to possibly be leaving my boys without a mom,” she confesses. “I didn’t want to cause more emotional pain to my other three children who had lost their biological mom to cancer before I came into their lives.” At the time, their kids ranged in age from 10 to 16, but they had to grow up fast and take a lot more responsibility than most kids their age faced.
As stressful as Tracy’s life was, she found peace through her faith. She also knew that it was personally important to her to maintain a positive attitude. Even during the most difficult treatments and hospitalizations, Tracy focused on keeping her spirits up and getting out of bed. She says, “I showered whenever they would let me – even if it wore me out. I put on mascara, did something with my hair, put on colored lip balm, sometimes even a touch of bronzer on my cheeks so that I didn’t look sick when I saw myself in the mirror in my room. I didn’t want to look how I felt.”
In April 2020, in the throes of the global pandemic, Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, who was Tracy’s transplant center, informed her that all non-emergency transplants were on hold. She had already waited more than a year and knew this could have devastating consequences, but she unpacked the “go bag” she’d had packed for months. Six weeks later, at 3:15 AM, the phone rang. It was Cedars-Sinai, and it was time to repack her bag, hug her family, and go receive a heart transplant. On Sunday, May 31, she received the gift of life.
Tracy is a fortunate person with a lot to be thankful for, and she knows it. She appreciates the little things like taking care of her home, cooking, and spending time with her friends and family. Because of an “unselfish and brave” young man named Rick, whose heart she now carries, she was able to spend the last 18 months of her dad’s life with him before he died of HCM. And today, she’s a devoted wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and Donate Life Northwest ambassador. She encourages those considering donation: “We cannot predict our futures, but giving extra time to someone – to be alive for those who count on them – is a pretty incredible and selfless act.”