SURREAL, BEAUTIFUL AND BITTERSWEET
Dr. Alin Gragossian is a physician with dual certifications in emergency medicine and critical care. She’s also a heart transplant recipient. In what seemed like a split second, everything changed as she went from doctor to patient and changed the course of her career and her life forever.
A volunteer opportunity during high school was the spark Alin needed to ignite her passion for medicine. Born in L.A., she attended medical school in Tennessee before moving to the Philadelphia / New York area for residency. She knew she wanted to work in emergency medicine before beginning her residency, a demanding specialty known for its intensity. Being healthy throughout her life, Alin was up for the challenge. It was here everything began to change.
Towards the end of her emergency medicine residency, one of Alin’s attending physicians noticed unusual symptoms, like taking extended pauses to catch her breath. What Alin thought was just a cold turned out to be anything but, and after one shift, she left the ER only to return hours later, this time as a patient.
Doctors discovered that Alin, a seemingly healthy medical professional in her early thirties, was in acute heart failure. Later on, Alin found that the cause of her heart failure was familial dilated cardiomyopathy, which also affected her father.
She was listed for an emergency heart transplant and transferred from where she worked in Philadelphia to the University of Pennsylvania. Alin describes it as “going from normal, healthy adult to heart transplant patient” in weeks.
Around a week post-transplant, Alin got discharged from the hospital and went home to recover. In June, she returned to finish her residency with a renewed perspective, one that gave her the desire to get involved and raise awareness for the importance of organ donation and transplantation.
3-4 months post-transplant, Alin was able to make a connection with her donor family. Utilizing the local organ procurement agency (OPO), Alin exchanged formal letters with her donor’s mom, Laura. After a year, Alin and Laura decided they wanted to connect directly rather than relying on a third party, such as the hospital or OPO. This communication is how Alin began to learn about Lucy, her donor. Lucy also worked in the medical field. She was a respiratory therapist, loved animals, and had a big family. She was 23 when she died because of a sudden brain cyst rupture.
Recently, Alin had the opportunity to meet Laura and her family, an experience she describes as “a surreal, beautiful and bittersweet experience. A story that transcends life itself.”
Post-transplant patients often wonder where to find a community and who they can talk to. In our conversation, Alin highlights the need for peer-to-peer support. She searched hashtags and found connections with other transplant recipients through social media.
“There are tons of doctors I could talk to, but they are never going to understand what I’m going through,” Alin said. “They understand the science, but they don’t understand the needs of a specific patient. When I leave the hospital, I don’t always have the doctors. I need places to get that support.” She also notes that as a physician, while there are textbooks and medical journals, there needs to be more conversation with patients focusing on lived experience.
When I asked Alin for her thoughts on returning to work and reintegrating into life post-transplant, she shared many of the same concerns as her transplanted peers. Being young and just starting a career, there are many challenges in returning to “normal.” She poignantly described the necessity of processing the old life she was losing before she could integrate into her new life post-transplant. Even if there are many ways to go back to what life was before, the life that exists post-transplant will never be identical. Learning to live one day at a time, Alin says, focusing on the moment and knowing that things take time are what helped her transition to celebrate the life she has now.
Check out Both Sides of the Stethoscope, a podcast hosted by two heart transplant recipients and physicians, Alin by Alin Gragossian and Colby Salerno. You can connect with Alin on Instagram at @a_change_of_heart_blog.
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