Duluth woman's heart transplant restored normal lifeFor Beth Bartlett, 58, an Ohio native, it’s not certain what caused her heart disease, known as myocarditis. But evidence points to an infection after she had her wisdom teeth pulled when she was 20 and a student at the College of Wooster.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
For Beth Bartlett, 58, an Ohio native, it’s not certain what caused her heart disease, known as myocarditis. But evidence points to an infection after she had her wisdom teeth pulled when she was 20 and a student at the College of Wooster.
The struggle would continue until she had her heart transplant at age 41.
But much of the time, she was able to live a full, active life. She went to graduate school in the Twin Cities. She and her husband, David Winchester, moved to Duluth, where she took a faculty job at the University of Minnesota Duluth, a position she has held 30 years. She’s a professor and department head in the Women’s Studies Department.
Their son, Paul, was born March 23, 1989. “It wasn’t clear whether I could tolerate that or not, but it seemed to go fine,” Bartlett said.
But soon after that, Bartlett started coughing up blood. She went to the heart failure clinic at University Hospital, and a heart doctor told her she had a year to live. Her heart’s ejection fraction — the percentage of blood the heart pumps out of its chamber — was 7 percent.
But Bartlett felt fine, and she was sent home.
She went into cardiac arrest for the first time a year later, May 4, 1990, while she was performing with the group Wild By Nature at the now-defunct Women’s Coffeehouse in Duluth. “I was playing (piano) at the time. Apparently, I just slumped off the piano bench into my friend’s arms.”
It happened again in late February 1991 while she was speaking at a public forum against a proposed safe harbor in Brighton Beach.
In both cases, her life was saved by doctors and nurses who happened to be in the audience.
After the first cardiac arrest, doctors at University Hospital planted an automatic implantable defibrillator in Bartlett. Its function is similar to rebooting your computer, stopping and restarting the heart when its rhythm goes askew. The patient is supposed to feel a single shock, and the heartbeat is to resume. But in Bartlett’s case, it didn’t work well. She would feel shock after shock without her heart responding.
It was a frightening episode while she was gardening outside her home that led Bartlett to pursue a heart transplant. It took six months to get insurance coverage, and she was on the waiting list for another two years.
For Bartlett, the transplant was life-changing.
“One of the things I mostly remember was just the physical freedom — going from the state that I was in, in which I couldn’t do anything, into basically being able to do anything,” she said. “That was just amazing.”
Her heart came from a
9-year-old girl named Jodi who had been in a small-plane crash in which her stepmother and sister died instantly. Jodi was brain-dead. On the fourth day, her family agreed to donate her organs.
Bartlett noticed something unusual after the transplant. She wasn’t depressed. And yet for several months, she experienced periods of extreme mourning that she attributed to her donor.
“This was just huge grief and sorrow, and it would overwhelm me … and it didn’t feel like it was mine,” she said. “It felt like it was hers; that she just didn’t want to die. She was 9 years old and didn’t want to die.”
Bartlett takes only three medications — two immunosuppressants and one for blood pressure. Her co-pay for all three is $11 per month.
And the transplant has changed her perspective.
“It certainly deepened my sense of gratitude,” Bartlett said. “Every day took on another different sense of preciousness.”
In her own words
Beth Bartlett wrote a book to describe what she calls “the spiritual dimension of my transplant experience.”
The book, “Journey of the Heart,” subtitled “Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant,” was published in 1997 by Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers of Duluth.
The book is out of print, but new and used copies still are available at Amazon.com.