UAB Medicine News
Teen Heart Transplant Patient Thanks UAB for New Future
At just 18 years old, Megan Gagliardi was told that she might die from a rare genetic heart condition. Now, thanks in part to UAB Medicine’s Comprehensive Transplant Institute (CTI), she is celebrating her recent engagement and an important six-year anniversary.
Gagliardi and her family moved from Memphis, Tenn., to Birmingham in 2010 during her senior year of high school. She says it was difficult moving to a school where she knew no one, and when she started experiencing health issues, she ignored them because she was focused on making it through the school year.
“I noticed I wasn’t feeling myself. I would go to bed at night, and I just felt like there was a pressure in my chest. I had this constant cough that never went away, but it was the end of the school year so I just tried to push through,” Gagliardi says. “After graduation, I told my mom how ill I felt. My mom decided she wanted to take me to the hospital so they ran a whole bunch of scans, test, and panels. They noticed there was a ton of fluid in my chest.”
Gagliardi says UAB Medicine’s Emergency Medicine care team wasn’t sure what was causing the fluid buildup, so they gave her a diuretic.
“The next morning I woke up 15 pounds lighter. I had lost 15 pounds of fluid during the night. They did another scan, and that’s when I was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy,” she says.
The news came as a surprise since she hadn’t had heart issues prior to the diagnosis. But Gagliardi says she felt she was in good hands once she was put under the care of Salpy Pamboukian, MD, Jose Tallaj, MD, and James Kirklin, MD, at UAB Medicine’s Heart and Vascular Clinic.
“I was 18 years old, and getting that kind of news was a big shock. I wasn’t really sure what to think,” Gagliardi says. “That day when I was at the hospital, they told me I would eventually need a heart transplant or I wouldn’t make it. Again, to get that news at 18, that’s just something that throws you into shock, and you worry. But I knew being at UAB Medicine, I would have great doctors to take care of me.”
A Special Birthday Present
Gagliardi immediately was placed on the heart transplant waiting list, joining over 3,900 others in the United States. She says she didn’t let the diagnosis keep her from living her life.
“I was diagnosed in June, and that August I decided to start college. I didn’t really tell anyone that I had an issue. I didn’t want anyone to look at me as the sick girl or the girl that had a heart issue, so I kind of kept that secret for a while,” Gagliardi says. “Eventually I told my closest friends that I had heart issues. I told them I couldn’t keep up or always take the stairs or do the same activities. That was tough.”
Gagliardi says the support she received from her transplant coordinators Yen Dibble, Sabrina Kopf, and Dana Mitchell helped her overcome those social challenges. Then, the night before her 19th birthday, she received a call that would change her life forever.
“I received my heart transplant on my 19th birthday. It’s the best birthday present I’ll ever get!” Gagliardi says. “By the time I received the transplant, I just remember feeling so grateful. The night we went in for the transplant, my whole family was around me and praying. I remember everyone around me crying, and at the same time, I was thinking ‘I’m so excited to be on the other side of this and to finally have my health back.’”
Gagliardi’s transplant was a success, and her doctors expect that her heart will last 15-25 years before she may need another transplant. She says she is thankful to have a physical reminder of the transplant to reflect on each day.
“When I look in the mirror, my chest scar [from the transplant] represents to me my battle scar. It shows to everyone what I’ve been through and what I’ve achieved,” she says. “I remember after the transplant, people would give me advice like ‘You can put oil on that’ or ‘You can use a scar cream and fade it away.’ I didn’t want to do that. I love my scar, and I love showing people what I’ve been through. It’s a huge part of me.”
A Brighter Future
What does the future hold for Gagliardi? She hopes to help others going through the transplant process.
“What I would love to do in the future is become a motivational speaker. I’ve gone around to a couple of different events, and I’ve shared my story and testimony with others. I would love to stand as an inspiration to those going through a similar situation,” she says.
It’s now been six years since her transplant, and Gagliardi says she celebrates that anniversary every year. Soon, she’ll be celebrating a different kind of anniversary; Gagliardi got engaged in September 2017. She says it was her care at UAB Medicine that is giving her this chance at a brighter future, and she couldn’t be more grateful.
“I would say to my doctors and nurses that cared for me, thank you for all that you do,” Gagliardi says. “I’m so thankful for the love you give and show your patients. You are the reason I’m here today. Thanks to UAB Medicine’s Comprehensive Transplant Institute, I can really say that my future is exciting.”
Click here to learn more about UAB Medicine’s Comprehensive Transplant Institute and how you can share the gift of life by becoming an organ donor.
Beating Cancer, Too
A 2011 study funded by the NIH’s National Cancer Institute found that organ transplant recipients have a higher risk of developing cancer than the general population. There are 32 different types of cancer that these recipients are prone to developing, including certain lymphomas. This is largely due to the immunosuppression medications patients must take to prevent their body from rejecting the transplanted organ.
Ten months after receiving her heart transplant, Megan Gagliardi began experiencing swollen lymph nodes, sluggishness, and fever. After seeing her doctors at UAB Medicine, she was diagnosed with diffuse large B Cell lymphoma, a type of cancer that begins in the white blood cells present in the body’s immune system. Because her anti-rejection medications were lowering her immune system’s ability to fight disease, she was more at risk to develop this cancer. Gagliardi was placed under the care of the UAB Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Amitkumar Mehta, MD, who decided to start her on chemotherapy immediately.
“They could tell from my scans that the cancer was in my neck and chest, and it was spreading,” she says.
Gagliardi underwent six rounds of chemotherapy starting in January 2013. “Because my white blood cell count was at an all-time low and I couldn’t risk being around sick people, I removed myself from a semester at Samford University,” Gagliardi says. “That was a really tough time, especially since I had just gone through the heart transplant.”
She says the side effects of chemotherapy were hard at such a young age.
“I went through what every cancer patient experiences: loss of hair, a puffy face from heavy steroids, and no energy. I received shots every few weeks to increase my white blood cell count, and those shots gave me bone pain. It was challenging,” Gagliardi says. “But I had my faith and trust in my doctors, which helped get me through it.”
Just two months after diagnosis, Gagliardi received great news.
“I finally hit remission around May 2013. My family and I were shocked and elated,” she says. “We are so thankful for the care we received at UAB Medicine. Now I see my future as truly exciting!”