Pneumonia to a New Heart: Amber’s Story

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Amber Eck was 20 years old when she developed acute myocarditis, or inflammation of and damage to the heart muscle, after a case of viral pneumonia. Acute myocarditis can lead to other heart problems, including heart failure. She was treated at Bon Secours Memorial Regional Medical Center, her local hospital, by Dr. Michael Wittkamp, and due to dangerous heart rhythms had an external defibrillator attached. A year later, she had an internal defibrillator implanted by Dr. Harpreet Grewal, also at Memorial Regional.

Despite the internal defibrillator, her ejection fraction, or amount of blood the left ventricle of the heart is pumping out around your body, was only 15%—well below normal. When the heart is not pumping enough blood, the heart is considered to be failing. Dr. Grewal referred Amber to the Advanced Heart Failure Center at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital, where she started being treated by Dr. Gary Zeevi, the then-Medical Director of the Advanced Heart Failure Center. At the Advanced Heart Failure Clinic, her heart failure was managed by medications prescribed by the team, and she continued to follow up with Dr. Wittkamp and Dr. Grewal.

Amber’s heart failure was well-managed for another couple of years, and despite being evaluated twice for transplant she was not considered sick enough to go on the heart transplant list. Three years after the pneumonia infection, the mitral valve in Amber’s heart spontaneously tore.

Amber was rushed to the emergency department of Memorial Regional and put into open-heart surgery to repair the valve. The damage was too severe for the repair to be sufficient long-term, but it worked as a temporary solution. The trauma of the tear and emergency surgery caused a pulmonary edema, or excess fluid in the lungs that makes it hard to breathe. Amber was put into a medically-induced coma for three weeks to recover.

During the coma, Amber was taken by ambulance over to St. Mary’s Hospital, where she was put on an ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, machine. The machine circulates blood outside of a body, reoxygenating the blood when heart and lungs can’t. She also went into organ failure, when internal organs begin to stop working and shut down. With an infection and organ failure, Amber was not expected to survive.

Dr. Stephen Fiser and Dr. Mark Katz implanted a left-ventricular assist device, or LVAD, which helps the heart pump blood and is used when patients are waiting for a transplant. Shortly after the LVAD was placed, Amber was taken out of the coma. After around a month in the hospital, Amber had recovered enough to go home.

At home, she was cared for by Bon Secours Home Health, as well as physical therapy and occupational therapy. After a few months she was well enough to start going back to her activities. When she had recovered, she was put on the heart transplant list at a local transplant hospital. Three years later, she received her heart transplant.

Now in her mid- twenties, Amber is thriving. She’s a student at the Bon Secours Memorial College of Nursing, and works as a patient care technician in the coronary care unit at St. Mary’s Hospital, where she was previously treated. She’s still following up at the Advanced Heart Failure Center with Dr. Roberta Bogaev, Chief of Cardiology, Bon Secours Virginia and Medical Director, Advanced Heart Failure Center. “I’m so appreciative of them for all they’ve done because Bon Secours saved my life,” Amber says. “Bon Secours as a whole and especially the Advanced Heart Failure team hold a very special place in my life because if it weren’t for them I would not be here.”