I had two heart transplants and now I become a doctor: "I do what I want"

I had two heart transplants and now I become a doctor: “I do what I want”

Becoming a doctor takes years of intensive study, long nights and dedication. For Gianna Paniagua, it took all that, plus two heart transplants.

At 31, Paniagua is one of the longest-serving child heart transplant recipients in the country — and now, against all odds, she’s enrolled in Columbia University’s Postbac Premed program, where she’ll earn the credits she needed. need to apply to medical school. year.

“I’m going for what I want at this particular moment,” Paniagua told The Post of her unlikely journey to get to this point. “Fear comes from feeling like something is missing and I don’t feel like anything is missing.”

Paniagua, who was born on the Upper East Side, was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – a condition in which the heart muscle thickens, making it harder to pump blood – as a child. She received her first heart transplant in 1992 at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital when she was just 14 months old. Despite being No. 1 on the transplant list, Paniagua had to wait three months before being matched with a donor.

The New York native underwent her first heart transplant at just 14 months old.

Going to the doctor has quickly become routine for the creative kid, who doesn’t feel like he missed out on much growing up and dreams of becoming a doctor.

“There was no before. It was just my life,” Paniagua said. “It’s not something I’m sorry about. It simply exists.

It wasn’t until she enrolled in college that she realized she was different.

Paniagua in front of one of its art installations

Paniagua creates installations and sculptures in cut paper.

She fell in love with arts and crafts while entertaining herself during her hospital visits.

The designer studied fine art at the University of Pittsburgh and turned to her art to help tell her story.

She turned entirely to the fine arts when doctors told her to drop out of her pre-medical studies.

She began her freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh by enrolling in pre-med and fine arts classes. But her classmates didn’t understand her inability to party and her medical team convinced her to drop out of her pre-med studies because she notoriously didn’t have the ‘stamina’ for classes. grueling.

She dropped out of her pre-medical major her second year, but continued to take science and biology classes. And she used her classmates’ inability to understand her heart condition as inspiration to begin telling her story through her artwork.

“I thought I couldn’t be a doctor and that art was another way to enter the medical world,” said Paniagua, who creates installations and cut-out paper sculptures. “Patients could see it and connect to it and able-bodied people could learn about it.”

After graduating from college, Paniagua began to experience chronic pain and her health began to deteriorate. Doctors eventually discovered she had cancer – a ‘mild’ case of post-transplant lymphoma known as PTLD – and would have to undergo a series of chemotherapy.

It was then that she decided to follow her dreams and apply to Columbia, which she did at the same time she started treatment.

Gianna Paniagua at Columbia University
She applied and was accepted to Columbia University while undergoing chemotherapy.
James Keivom

While recovering, sick and slumped on the hospital bathroom floor, Paniagua opened her email to see that she had been accepted.

“It was really fantastic and weird and kind of surreal,” she said as she opened her acceptance email. “I was finally doing what I wanted to do since I was 3 years old.”

In July 2019, she was discharged from hospital and moved into her dorm in August. But she got sicker and sicker during the COVID-19 pandemic and moved back to live with her mother in Pittsburgh. The walk left her breathless and she experienced heart palpitations, extreme water retention, nausea, headaches and eventually seizures.

Gianna does her homework in her hospital bed after organ rejection and heart failure at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in 2020

Paniagua continued her studies at Columbia University in 2020 while suffering organ rejection and heart failure before her second heart transplant.

Gianna is recovering on the day of her second heart transplant in February 2021 at Vanderbilt University

In February 2021, she underwent her second heart transplant and had a horrific recovery.

Paniagua playing doctor when she was 3 years old

Paniagua has wanted to be a doctor since she was three years old.

Gianna in her dorm Columbia Fall 2022

The 31-year-old is happy to finally be able to follow her dreams.

“I felt like I was dying,” she said.

Unfortunately, she was right.

She was told she would need a second heart transplant, which is common with infant heart transplant recipients, but Paniagua needed hers immediately. Without her, she would only have four months to live.

In addition to her physical symptoms, Paniagua also began to struggle with the “emotional toll of accepting that you may not wake up tomorrow”.

Getting approved for a heart transplant is no small feat. Not only did Paniagua have to connect with the right donor, the hospital program and the surgical team, but she also had to convince the doctors that she wanted to live.

“One of the questions was, ‘Why do you deserve to live?’ I don’t think anything prepares you for having two doctors staring at you and having to fight for your life with verbal persuasion,” she said. “The emotional pressure was horrible.”

Being one of the longest-lived childhood heart transplant recipients in the country made her a high-risk patient due to the large amounts of scar tissue caused by her numerous biopsies over the years.

“It was kind of a kick in the gut. Like you weren’t even given a chance,” she said.

Fortunately, Dr. Mary Keebler, who had previously been to Vanderbilt University, was part of her transplant team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and enrolled her in a program there within weeks.

In February 2021, Paniagua successfully received her second heart transplant at Vanderbilt, which allowed her to continue her pre-med studies.

However, his recovery was not easy. Paniagua remembers being in the worst pain of her life – not being able to move her body even an inch and needing to be on a ketamine drip just to get to the bathroom.

Portrait of heart transplant survivor Gianna Paniagua near Columbia University campus
Paniagua hopes to graduate from Columbia University and apply to medical school in a year.
James Keivom

Today, as a lifelong patient, she believes she can bring a unique perspective to medical school and help others like her.

“It’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said. “You were born with the personality that you have. You were born with the talents you have. And those I was born with are doing great to try to help move the transplant forward.

She even recently started a transplant support group in New York.

“A million people have been through this with you,” she said, referring to the United States which completed its millionth organ transplant this month. “You get to be one in a million.”

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