Unlikely group of teens lose their hearts, become friends

Families shocked that common flu-like symptoms led to heart transplants

Published: Monday, Aug. 15 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

Dr. Melanie Everett checks up on Joey Carpio, 15, who received a new heart in July.

Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — They sat around the clinic comparing medication regimens, stories from the operating room, bruises from the many pokes and piercings of various IVs and, of course, their scars.

They even joked about the names they've been called since the prednisone kicked in, causing their faces to swell.

And then there are the bingo prizes they've won during their hospital stays. A passer-by would never assume each patient has yet to reach the ripe old age of 16.

"Who would have thought a bunch of teenagers would be talking about pills?" the oldest of four heart transplant recipients, Joey Carpio, said. The way he tells it, ninjas are a big part of the story, but they are a part of everything in his life — he's 15.

Truth is, Joey is lucky to be alive.

After a couple weeks of feeling stomach pains and vomiting every once in a while, the Idaho teen was rushed to Primary Children's Medical Center, via medical jet, where he later received a heart transplant. He waited one month for the new heart and has been rebounding ever since.

"He's doing better than expected, as if he hadn't had a transplant," his mom, Mandi Carpio said. She didn't expect for it to happen at all, not to mention so quickly.

The story is much the same for three other adolescents, who also received a second chance at life within the same month or so that Joey did.

The bittersweet reality is that summer is trauma season for the hospital, in more ways than one, as the majority of transplants happen when kids are typically more active outdoors and likely participating in more risky activities, said hospital spokeswoman Bonnie Midget.

Primary Children's cardiac program is one of the best in the business for children in the Intermountain region of the country and on average, performs about 10 heart transplants each year, so four in one month's time — during the busiest season of the year — isn't all that unusual.

"It's nice to know you're not the only person going through it," said Maya Fullmer-Silvera, who was also experiencing common, flu-like symptoms prior to a full-blown heart transplant on July 7.

"That's something that happens to someone else's kids," said her dad, Joe Fullmer. The family was caught by surprise when a new heart showed up in just a week and a half, much more quickly than the three to six months she was promised. "We weren't quite ready but her heart had been getting worse, so it was good."

Maya is now looking forward to getting back on the low beam, as she loves and excels at gymnastics.

Primary Children's Medical Center performs more than 600 cardiothoracic surgeries, including 300 open heart procedures and more than 700 cardiac catheterizations, each year. The outpatient cardiology clinic is open seven days a week and is always bustling, Midget said. Patients return on a dwindling weekly and monthly schedule, based on their individual performance, but all four youths were there Monday for a follow-up visit.

"It's a friendship I hope we won't lose," said Abby Doman, 12. She collapsed May 18 during a typical workout in gym class. Abby's teachers performed CPR for up to nine minutes and medical personnel shocked her heart twice once they arrived at the girl's St. George school.

Abby, who "went from being 100 percent perfect to being on the transplant list just like that," hasn't been home since that day and remains on oxygen for some slight asthma issues aside from the transplant. She did, however, recently get the OK from doctors to go shopping.

"When I walk, I don't get tired now," she said, adding that she's looking forward to going running again. Otherwise, she's blacked out most of what happened and is focused on a full recovery for a life that will always include a 6-inch-long scar at the center of her chest.

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