July 31, 2020

A Therapist Who Works With Chronic Illness & A Patient Too: My Transplant Journey

Hello all, I’m Lara.

I am a Marriage and Family Therapist associate in California, and I work with teens, young adults, and career professionals who are working through issues surrounding anxiety, depression, self-esteem, personal development, and relationship issues. But my true call to action is the work I do with those living with chronic illness.

In all honesty when I originally set out to get my master’s in counseling, working with the chronic illness population was not something I was considering, even though I had a chronic illness at the time.

At the age of 23, I was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy (which meant my heart was not able to pump blood effectively to the rest of my body) and soon after, I was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia (VT) — a horrible and life-threatening rhythm issue. I had an ICD which kept me safe, but I would frequent the ER more than anyone would like.

I knew the nurses, I knew which staff did paperwork the fastest, and I knew exactly how the amiodarone should be given. “Don’t do a push, please give me a drip or else my blood pressure will drop”. Another popular sentence by me was “This vein never gives blood, try my other arm”. I became more familiar with the medical world than I ever wanted to be.

I lived like this for 5 years. I spent a large part of my 20s in this constant state of panic. Always wondering when the next VT storm would hit which was not only terrifying, but it made my cardiomyopathy worse, reaching an ejection fraction as low at 8 percent at times (An ejection fraction is a measurement of the percentage of blood leaving your heart each time it contracts. A healthy heart’s ejection fraction is from 50-60 percent).

Safe to say, stairs were not my friend.

In the meantime, though, I lived a good life, just one with an invisible illness. I began dating a wonderful man, spent time with family and friends, and received my masters. I tried to keep moving life forward but I was always grieving the parts of my life that weren’t “normal”, the version of myself that I had lost, and the milestones I was likely to never hit (having a wedding, taking trips with friends, or having children) because of my illness.

I cannot emphasize this enough; my own therapy was one of the most important protective factors during this time. Without it, I don’t think I would have found my own strength and would have fallen into a depressive daze. 

Transplant was always on the table, but I believed that if I did the work, I could save or fix my heart. After countless ablations and medication changes, I had my last and likely worst VT episode. My ICD fired, hard, and at that moment I knew that the fight to keep my heart was over. It was time for a transplant. I was listed shortly after, and after waiting for 13 days, I got the call on June 19, 2019.

My life has taken a 180 since transplant. I had created a box in my mind and labeled it “I Can’t”. In that box I filled all of these dreams, aspirations, desires, and joys. It was a box filled with things I was no longer able to do or would never be able to experience. Things like running and jumping and swimming. Things like crossing the street in a rush, or driving at night, or making long term plans without the caveat of “I’ll see if I can”.

Transplant has allowed me to open that box back up. I have spent the last year pulling things out one by one. The limitations I had been living with aren’t limitations anymore. It is surreal and humbling after living with an illness for so long. And it is all thanks to a donor who gave me and others the ultimate gift through his graciousness. He is always on my mind. I am always working to keep our heart safe, to make him proud. There are not enough thank you’s I can ever say to express my gratitude.

As I mentioned before, while getting my masters, I did not think I would be working with individuals living with chronic illness, but my personal experiences transformed me. My own therapy allowed me to tackle my issues with a bit more grace, humor, and strength.

What I experienced was unique, but I am not the only one. So, through my work as a therapist, I wanted to provide space to those of us who are learning to live with a chronic illness, who are grieving at times, and who are trying to navigate life while honoring our health concerns. My work still tackles all sorts of issues such as anxiety, depression, and relationship issues but it does so from the lens of living with a chronic illness. It is the most rewarding work I have ever done. I am honored to be a part of other’s transformations. I am honored to work with individuals towards the goal of living an authentic, happy, and content life, despite of and in congruency to, their medical conditions.

For more some chronic illness and self-development inspiration, you can follow my Instagram @wishyouwellness_ or check out my website