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Bravery while she waits for a second heart transplant

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Wyoming woman is thankful for every day

Cathy Dobson

Lisa Vanderhulst’s first heart transplant saved her life at age 30 when she had two babies to raise.

It allowed her to see her children grow up, see them educated and married, and make her a grandmother.

At age 53, she thinks about that every day and is grateful.

“I’ve had a good life. The transplant made me feel indestructible. After it, I wanted to be a police officer. I went to college for police foundations. I worked with youth in detention. I worked with adults with developmental challenges. I worked in the bank and loved my job and the people there. 

“But most of all, I got to be with my family. They are everything to me.”

Lisa has always wondered about who her donor was and she’s tried to find out. But all she knows is that her heart belonged to a 12-year-old.

“We were told that it would last 15 years and here we’ve had it 23,” her mom, Kathy Foisy, said. 

Lisa Vanderhulst and her mom Kathy Foisy. (Cathy Dobson photo)

About three years ago, Lisa’s heart transplant started failing.

“I have transplant coronary artery disease,” she said. “I’ve had six stents put in and they can’t do any more and now I’m on the transplant list again for another new heart.”

She reclines in a cushy chair in her livingroom in Wyoming, covered in a blanket and speaking in a soft voice that’s a little breathless. She has to conserve her energy.

“I’ve had cancer too over the years because some of the drugs you take for the heart cause that,” she explains. “Sometimes I think everything that could have happened, has happened.” She laughs. There’s no feeling sorry for herself. It’s just a fact.

Lisa and her husband Doug have been married 34 years. He’s done a lot of the heavy lifting to keep the household running and to take care of Lisa, especially on the days she can’t get out of bed.

“Kudos to Doug,” said Kathy. “There aren’t too many men like him.”

After her first heart transplant 23 years ago, Lisa Vanderhulst made this ceramic angel for the hospital room where she coded and nearly died. “I wanted to make the experience better for everyone else who stayed in that room.” It was returned to her when the room was renovated.

“It seems like every year we get kicked in the ass by something,” agreed Lisa. “He took our vows seriously!”

Her transplant team in London feels her odds of surviving a second transplant are better at Toronto General Hospital, so this time all the appointments are a three-hour drive away.

Since Lisa is on sick leave from her job at the bank and Doug’s business is seasonal, they are receiving financial help from S.O.D.A. (Sarnia Organ Donor Awareness) to pay for gas. Once Lisa gets the critical call to say there is a new heart available for her and she gets her transplant, she will be required to stay close to the hospital in Toronto for three months. S.O.D.A. will help with that financial burden too.

For years, Lisa has been an enthusiastic advocate for S.O.D.A., Canadian Blood Services, and the Terry Fox Run. 

“I always feel there has to be a reason for everything,” she said. “I’m not good at anything but I have the gift of the gab and I don’t mind talking to people if it will help.”

She’s been on the transplant list for a new heart for about two months and quickly checks her phone every time it rings. Her bags are packed in case a heart is found for her.

“I know there’s a chance it might not happen,” she said. “So this time around, it’s about educating people. Sign your driver’s licence. Communicate to your family that you want to donate your organs.

“A new heart 23 years ago gave me a new chance, an opportunity to be with my family that I thought I’d never have. I’m thankful,  very, very thankful for the last 23 years.”

As accepting as she seems, Lisa is also determined to survive and spend more time with family. Her mom calls her stubborn. Defiant even.

“I realize it could go either way and I have to be realistic,” Lisa said. “I’m taking one day at a time and when I get the call, I am ready to go.”

Friends have started a GoFundMe page called “Keep the HeartBEAT of this family going strong” and are trying to raise $30,000 for the Vanderhulsts. To date, about $4,400 has been donated.

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