Kay and Murray Jackson began their mission work in Africa in the 1970s, starting their own nonprofit organization to help orphans live a better life. Eventually moving to the continent in the late 1980s, the couple built and established schools for children in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. They also provided clean drinking water and operated mobile medical clinics in remote villages that were ravaged by rebel activity, providing treatments, medications and even surgeries to anybody who needed it.

But by 2010, the couple moved back to southeastern Wisconsin and noticed that Kay was having a hard time breathing. She visited her primary care physician and cardiologist who diagnosed her with congestive heart failure. With the left side damaged and only 10% of her heart pumping, Kay was forced to stop working, both domestically and in Africa. Medicine helped her for five years, but in 2015, after routine bouts of fainting, Kay had a defibrillator and pacemaker implanted and was referred to the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Comprehensive Heart Failure and Transplant Program for further care.

“Even after the defibrillator and pacemaker were implanted, I kept passing out and hitting my head while falling down,” Kay said. “My doctors told me that they couldn’t help me anymore, and that is why they sent me to Froedtert Hospital, where the team of doctors there saved my life.”

Heart Transplant Candidacy and Urgency

Upon visiting Froedtert Hospital, Nunzio Gaglianello, MD, advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist, and Mitchell Saltzberg, MD, advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist and medical director of the Comprehensive Heart Failure and Transplant Program, took over Kay’s medical care. They reviewed Kay’s medical history and ran blood tests before ultimately coming to a conclusion that Kay was a candidate for a heart transplant. She was placed on the waiting list and given new medications to regulate her blood pressure and to keep her in stable condition at home, which worked well for two years.

Then, in early February 2017, the medications weren’t enough. Kay fainted at home.

“I actually died,” Kay said. “My heart stopped. My daughter noticed my eyes roll back in my head, and I had no pulse. My body shook from the defibrillator trying to bring me back to life, and thankfully, it did.”

Kay was taken to Froedtert Hospital and admitted to the intensive care unit. Her doctors moved her near the top of the heart transplant waiting list and told her that the hospital was her home until they could find her a new heart. They also told Kay and her family that this home could be her last, if they were unable to find a heart soon.

“Kay was quite ill,” Dr. Saltzberg said. “She had an enlarged heart that was quite weak, her blood pressure and blood flow were being supported with powerful medications and she had the beginning of organ dysfunction from cardiogenic shock. The team worked together to stabilize her condition in the ICU while we continued to find her a new heart.”

Lovely Day for a Heart Transplant

After ten days in the ICU, Kay and Murray received good news. Dr. Saltzberg informed them that the perfect matching heart was found, and he offered it to Kay. She graciously accepted and went into surgery that night — Valentine’s Day 2017.

“When we heard Dr. Saltzberg tell us that they found a heart for me, Murray and I looked at him in shock,” Kay said. “He told us that it was a miracle gift, and that I needed to take it. I thought it was so neat that he encouraged me. I appreciated it.”

Performed by Ronald Woods, MD, cardiothoracic and general surgeon, Kay’s surgery began around 10 p.m. and ended around 6 a.m. the next day. The surgery went perfectly well, and Kay spent about two months in the hospital recovering, gaining strength and learning how to live with her new heart with the help from dedicated transplant coordinators. Once at home, Kay’s family and friends helped her recover further, and she routinely returned to the hospital to see Dr. Saltzberg for follow-up care, where everything was performing normally.

“Kay’s new heart is doing extremely well,” Dr. Saltzberg said. “One of her biggest wishes was to get back to Africa so she could meet her new grandchildren that her daughter and son-in-law adopted. I wanted to make sure that our staff did our best to give her that opportunity.”

Post-Transplant Life and Gratitude

With her new heart and knowledge from her doctors on how to protect it, Kay was able to get back to Africa in November 2018 to meet her four new grandchildren. She was also able to share her story to communities that she helped build before she left for her heart care. Kay is grateful for the staff at the Froedtert & MCW health network that have allowed her to continue visiting her children and grandchildren, both in Africa and the U.S.

“I owe my life to the doctors, nurses and staff,” Kay said. “Everybody at Froedtert treats you like family. Before I went home, the nurses and assistants told me that I’ll be part of their family for the rest of my life, and that they are here to take care of me. It touched my heart to know that they will always be there for me.”

In addition, Kay and Murray both are grateful for the genetic specialists at the Froedtert & MCW health network who recently determined that Kay had a genetic marker for congestive heart failure. Now knowing this, the couple had their children checked and were relieved to learn that none of them carry this marker. Just as the Jacksons are happy about the care they received, Dr. Saltzberg and his colleagues are happy to treat them, and those similar who are in need of care.

“Their mission work is so admirable,” Dr. Saltzberg said. “It was great getting to know them and letting them know us. We are very strong advocates for our patients, which sometimes involves getting in touch with personal aspects of their lives so they feel a sense of home and know that we are really pushing for their best outcome.”

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