Exceptional medical care, paired with a positive mindset, led a Spring Valley woman toward a remarkable recovery.
By Lisa Cesarano
Until 12 years ago, now 55-yearold Emmanuela Bien-Aime says she “never even needed to take an aspirin.” At that time, having experienced the sudden onset of body swelling and joint pain, the retail-jewelry buyer and mother of two was diagnosed with Lupus. Finding it increasingly difficult to care for herself, she relocated to Atlanta, where her mother, Vierge, could help care for her.
Then, in 2013, she experienced a heart attack and fell into a coma for two and a half weeks. During her coma, three more massive heart attacks followed. Once her condition stabilized, doctors implanted a cardio-defibrillator. When she finally awakened, a nurse told Bien-Aime, a devout Catholic, “Whoever is watching over you must really love you.”
But in the summer of 2016, BienAime— who had moved back to Spring Valley, to be closer to her siblings and grown children — experienced a crushing pain in her chest, learning later that “the pacemaker shocked me three times. It practically lifted me off the ground.” She was immediately taken to Good Samaritan Hospital, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth).
From there, she was transferred to Westchester Medical Center, the flagship of WMCHealth, to receive advanced care. “The shock was from a leaking valve and a failing heart,” explains Bien-Aime.
After undergoing tests at Westchester Medical Center, she was stunned to learn that not only was she was unable to return home, but she also required a heart transplant.
Alan Gass, MD, Medical Director of Heart Failure, Heart Transplantation & Mechanical and Circulatory Support at Westchester Medical Center. Dr. Gass laid out some sobering facts about the challenges that lay ahead. Bien-Aime’s blood type was O+. Although this is the most common blood type, it meant that she would be “competing” against more recipients. Because of her previous surgeries, blood transfusion and child birth, she also had many antibodies that would make finding a compatible donor difficult. She was looking at a potentially long wait.
Bien-Aime, however, had other plans in mind. “I am a very positive person,” she says. “I told them that I would be out of the hospital for my mother’s birthday in November.”
Bien-Aime says she focused on not only maintaining her positive mindset but sharing her uplifting energy with those around her. She quickly befriended her roommate, with whom she still remains in touch to this day.
For nearly six weeks, when Dr. Gass and his staff regularly made their rounds to monitor Bien-Aime’s condition, she would often remind them of her selfimposed November transplant deadline.
“The staff at the hospital was wonderful,” recalls Bien-Aime. “Dr. Gass made me feel like I had known him for years. His bedside manner is amazing.” For her part, Bien-Aime also made her rounds, visiting and cheering on fellow heart and transplant patients. “Look at how sick I am,” she would tell them. “But I’m not letting it get me down.”
“Then, on September 28, 2016, Dr. Gass came in to my room and said, ‘You can’t eat breakfast today.’ I didn’t understand what he meant, then he said, ‘We need to prepare you for surgery.’”
In a matter of six weeks, a mere fraction of the expected timeframe, a suitable donor heart was located and being flown up from North Carolina. The transplant surgery was performed by David Spielvogel, MD, Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Program Director of Heart Transplantation at Westchester Medical Center.
“Her immediate post-operative course was smooth and uncomplicated,” says Dr. Gass. “She came off the ventilator the day after surgery and her heart immediately functioned perfectly. She really could not have had a better recovery.” Beyond expert medical care, what was the secret to such an unusually quick recovery?
“Emmanuela’s spirituality and her creativity seemed to have helped her recovery along,” says Dr. Gass. Equally important, he adds, “She had a very clear and specific idea of what she would do with her life post-transplant.”
With her health back on track, she intends to use her hours as meaningfully as possible. “I love art,” she says. “Abstract, realism… I love it all.”
Beyond exploring her creativity through painting, Bien-Aime intends to fulfill another calling, which she first experienced as a 17-year-old candy striper at Good Samaritan Hospital. “I want to work in a children’s hospice,” she says. “I have always been drawn to helping people who are sick and I love to make them feel comfortable,” she says, adding, “I am blessed. Every hour you get to see is a blessing.”