Heart transplant survivor shakes off sheltered childhood to enjoy life

May 15, 2018
Kendra Plumley, now 29, needed a heart transplant at age 21 months. Photo courtesy: Kendra Plumley

Kendra Plumley didn't spend her childhood running around with other kids on her street, having friends over for sleepovers, or spending lazy summer days by the pool. Instead, she spent most of her time indoors. It wasn't a choice. She had to protect her new heart.

Today, the 29-year-old from Midlothian, Texas, is making up for lost time by embracing all that life has to offer.

"I know that I'm a miracle," Plumley said. "My heart was killing me."

Plumley was born in 1988 with dilated cardiomyopathy. People with this condition have an enlarged left ventricle in their heart that is too weak to pump blood correctly. Early on, she said, her mother suspected something was wrong. Initially, though, her doctors attributed her problems eating to acid reflux. But before long, her doctors realized the situation was more dire. Tests showed she had dilated cardiomyopathy—the same condition her father had.

When she was 21 months old, she had a .

Initially, life didn't get much easier. Her mother had to keep her on a strict drug regimen and there was what seemed like an endless schedule of follow-up visits to her cardiologist. Plumley has needed multiple surgeries since her transplant to correct an intestinal problem, remove multiple cysts and manage gum overgrowth due to medications. She had pneumonia several times, and almost died from the infection.

Plumley said her mother constantly worried about her and, to try to keep her healthy, didn't let her interact much with other kids. "All I ever wanted [was] just to be a kid," said Plumley.

At school, some of her classmates picked on her relentlessly, in part because one of the medications she had to take caused her to have excess hair growth on her arms and legs.

Even now as an adult, she said, some social situations are still hard for her to navigate. But she's got better tools to handle it. "I've grown a lot," she said.

Susan Daneman was the assistant director of nursing in the transplant unit at Children's Medical Center Dallas when Plumley received her new heart. The longtime nurse said her patient was quiet and intense, but also a "very sweet, precious child" who assumed a great deal of responsibility at a young age, following instructions to the letter.

Daneman is aware that many children who receive new hearts don't live as long as Plumley, and said her former patient has done an excellent job taking care of her health. A recent study showed that children between ages 1 and 5 who got a lived about an additional 21 years if they survived the first year after the procedure.

"I just loved watching her grow into a beautiful young woman who is independent and out there in the workforce and doing wonderful things with her life," said Daneman. "I wish all my patients could be like her."

Plumley's sister, Ashley, said she admired her younger sister's strength and resilience in the face of the constant poking and prodding she had to endure as a child.

"I really look up to her for everything she's been through—and how far she has come," she said. Ashley said she often shares her family's story in hopes of encouraging others to become organ donors.

These days, Plumley works as a construction trade show coordinator and is engaged. And she's pursuing her passion for photography. Her favorite assignments, she said, are taking pictures of newborns.

As the 28th anniversary of her transplant approaches, Plumley finds herself thinking about what she went through, and how far she has come. Moving out on her own at 18 was a significant turning point, she said, pushing her to find her voice, get out of her comfort zone and take risks.

She's still afraid of picking up germs, but that doesn't stop her from traveling. Now and then, she'll take her 1970 Ford Mustang out for a spin. She has numerous tattoos, including one in memory of her father, who died of failure in 2000.

After living so many years with restrictions, she said, "Nobody was ever going to tell me I wasn't going to do something again."

Explore further: Survey: Parents should be allowed to be present during trauma care

4 shares

Related Stories

Survey: Parents should be allowed to be present during trauma care

November 8, 2017
Hospitals that adopt a policy allowing parents in trauma room are seeing the benefits

Q&A: Life after a heart transplant

March 28, 2018
Dear Mayo Clinic: My dad is 66 and was just put on the waitlist for a heart transplant due to coronary artery disease. How soon after the transplant would we know that he's out of the woods and his body didn't reject the ...

More children surviving dilated cardiomyopathy without heart transplant

November 19, 2014
More children with dilated cardiomyopathy are surviving without a heart transplant, according to research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2014.

This 'heart of the family' awaits a new heart

March 26, 2018
Felix Aguirre has always been close to his family. The oldest of four siblings, he's known for putting the needs of his relatives above his own.

What is heart failure?

April 17, 2018
Heart failure – one of the conditions former first lady Barbara Bush has been diagnosed with – is a fairly common condition, especially among older patients.

Six-day-old baby has youngest US heart transplant (Update)

February 12, 2015
A six-day old premature baby has become the youngest infant to receive a heart transplant at a US hospital, doctors and her proud parents said Thursday.

Recommended for you

Natural antioxidant bilirubin may improve cardiovascular health

May 18, 2018
Bilirubin, a yellow-orange pigment, is formed after the breakdown of red blood cells and is eliminated by the liver. It's not only a sign of a bruise, it may provide cardiovascular benefits, according to a large-scale epidemiology ...

New algorithm more accurately predicts life expectancy after heart failure

May 17, 2018
A new algorithm developed by UCLA researchers more accurately predicts which people will survive heart failure, and for how long, whether or not they receive a heart transplant. The algorithm would allow doctors to make more ...

New genes found that determine how the heart responds to exercise

May 17, 2018
A new study by researchers at Queen Mary University of London and University College London (UCL) has discovered 30 new gene locations that determine how the heart responds to and recovers from exercise.

Novel therapy inhibits complement to preserve neurons and reduce inflammation after stroke

May 16, 2018
A team of investigators at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) has developed a novel therapy for ischemic (clot-caused) stroke and has shown in a preclinical model that it locally inhibits complement at and around ...

Greater burden of atrial fibrillation linked to higher stroke risk

May 16, 2018
Among people with intermittently recurring atrial fibrillation who are not taking anti-blood-clotting medications, those whose hearts were in abnormal rhythms longer were three times more likely to have strokes or other types ...

Stroke prevention drug combo shows promise, study says

May 16, 2018
If you've had a minor stroke or a transient ischemic stroke (TIA), taking the clot-preventing drug clopidogrel along with aspirin may lower your risk of having a major stroke within the next 90 days, according to new research ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.