Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist
MINNEAPOLIS - When Jhonna Loftis steps on a treadmill and starts to walk, the 21-year-old college student can't help but smile.
She has energy again. Her feet and hands are now pink and warm as the blood circulates properly throughout her body. Most important, her heart is strong and healthy. She can even feel it pumping along as she exercises.
"I didn't expect to feel so good so fast," Loftis said Dec. 14 at her Minneapolis apartment, 15 days after undergoing a lifesaving heart transplant.
Only 21, Loftis has had a lifetime battle with a genetic heart disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that has plagued several members of her family. Her dad, the late Jon Wasnie, died suddenly of ventricular fibrillation while he was playing ice softball. He was 19. Her mother, Dawn Hines, Nisswa, was three months pregnant with Loftis when her dad died.
Loftis, who underwent the heart transplant Nov. 29, became the third member of her family to receive a new heart. Her grandfather, the late Ken Wasnie, received a heart transplant in 1984. He died in 2002. Her great-aunt and Ken's sister, Sue Huff, of Baxter, became the first recipient of a successful heart transplant in Minnesota in 1978. Huff will celebrate the 28th anniversary of her transplant on July 26 as the longest living heart transplant recipient in the state.
No more heart disease. It's a concept that Loftis has yet to grasp.
"It's so weird to say that I don't have heart disease," said Loftis.
It runs in family
Sue Huff, Jhonna Loftis' great-aunt, became the first successful heart transplant recipient in Minnesota in 1978. While she's been battling health problems during the past year, Huff continues to be a fighter. Story
She's had "attacks" throughout her life. If she overexerted herself, her heart would begin to flutter, beating rapidly, which can be a frightening feeling that causes anxiety attack-like symptoms before Loftis blacks out.
She was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy when she was 5, and while she was able to participate on a Just for Kix dance team until about seventh grade, the dancing became too much for her heart and she had to give it up. While a normal human heart is about the size of a fist, Loftis' heart was two to three times that size and pressed on her liver and stomach, making her feel ill. She's had a handicapped parking sticker on her car since she got her driver's license at 16.
"It was quite scary," her mom, Dawn, said of Jhonna's ongoing heart condition. "Her symptoms appeared so much sooner than her dad's or her great-aunt's or anybody's (in the family). She had to stop participating in gym when she was 9 or 10 because she couldn't do it anymore."
Hines said she always felt that her daughter would one day need a heart transplant. She just didn't realize it would happen so soon.
In August 2004, Loftis went into congestive heart failure. Three months later, she was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia. Her ailing heart developed malfunctioning electrical impulses, almost like an electrical short in her heart. While heart patients qualify for a heart transplant when their ejection fraction rate - or the percentage of blood in the left ventricle per heartbeat - is under 13-14 percent, Loftis' ejection fraction rate was at 7-1/2 percent. Her body could perform only 21 percent of what a person normally could do at her age. She was sleeping often and felt extremely tired.
Despite all this, life went on. Loftis and her husband, Luke, were married on June 17 in Brainerd. Jhonna, a 2003 Brainerd High School graduate, attends North Hennepin Community College, studying non-invasive cardiac technology. She hopes to one day work for Medtronic, teaching doctors about the latest heart technology. Luke, a 2002 BHS graduate, attends Arts Institutes International of Minnesota, majoring in media arts and animation.
"It's a big first year of marriage for things to happen," said Jhonna Loftis.
On Sept. 1, with her health deteriorating, Loftis was placed on a heart transplant waiting list at the University of Minnesota Fairview University Medical Center, the same hospital where her grandfather and great-aunt received their hearts. In the middle of the night on Sept. 12, she and her husband got their first dry run, racing to the hospital for what turned out to be a false alarm. While there was a donor heart available, the weather conditions were terrible and doctors weren't sure the heart could be flown to the hospital in that type of weather so the operation was canceled. Loftis was relieved. It was a scary experience and she felt she wasn't ready yet to undergo the operation. It did help prepare her for the operation that was to come.
"I'm perfectly healthy besides my heart," said Loftis. "All I needed was a new heart."
Five days after Thanksgiving, Loftis received her new heart.
"It was pretty scary," Luke Loftis said of the waiting during his wife's operation. He said the most difficult thing about Jhonna's ongoing heart problems was not being able to help her, that feeling of not being in control of the situation.
"It was amazing," Dawn Hines said of her daughter's heart transplant. "I can't believe that something like this can be done. You hear about it and I know her grandfather and great-aunt had it. But until it happens to you, you don't really know how important organ donors are. Since her surgery, I've been really stressing to people I know how important it is to be a donor."
Still, Hines said when she learned a heart was available for her daughter, she had conflicting emotions. While it meant a new and improved life for her daughter, it also meant that another family was grieving over the loss of a loved one.
"I'd love to know who they are and be able to express my gratitude," Hines said of the donor family. "It's a big sacrifice, regardless of whether their loved one would have been able to make it or not. It's a huge sacrifice and it's hard. It takes a real loving person to be able to do that."
In six months Loftis will be given the opportunity to write a letter to the donor family and they have the choice to write back or not. She was given no information about the donor.
"I don't know if it's hit me yet, that I have someone else's organs in my body," said Loftis. "It's still so new."
Now Loftis is on a path of recovery. She goes to cardiac rehabilitation three days a week, hooked up to monitors as she walks on a treadmill or rides an exercise bike. She loves to dance but could never do it for longer than a minute because of her bad heart. She can't wait to dance again and also looks forward to swimming.
Dawn Hines and her husband, Don, who were married when Jhonna was 4, feel they already received their Christmas present this year.
"It's the best gift any mother or father could have, not to see their child stop a couple of times up a flight of steps and to be able to do whatever everybody else is doing," said Hines. "I don't need anything else."
JODIE TWEED can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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