IT’S A CALL LIKE NO OTHER — one that could mean life or death. Susan Mahler’s call came on June 19, 2010 — a day before a planned Father’s Day celebration.
“This is Jeanne at Cedars,” the caller said. “We have a heart. Come now.”
It was a call Mahler had been hoping to get and, at the same time, one that she dreaded. In a matter of hours and within a crowded operating room, she would receive a new heart from a donor whose name she does not know. It arrived by helicopter.
Mahler’s husband, Barney, and daughter, Trish, helped her pack and the three raced to the car for the long drive through maddening traffic to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
A retired Chula Vista elementary-school principal, Mahler took the wheel; it was the only way she could keep her mind off the gravity of the impending operation.
Since being diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2000, Mahler had been on a seesaw of hospitalizations, surgeries and doctor visits. At one time, she was on life support, a drip therapy keeping her alive. The prognosis was gloomy — until she received the new heart, which has put her back on a more normal footing.
Twenty-four hours after the operation, Mahler was walking. Nine days later, she was discharged from the hospital and put in an intensive outpatient rehab program in Los Angeles. But she wasn’t entirely out of the woods. A deadly E. coli infection developed in her system, and she lost seven pints of blood. It was back to the hospital for five more days.
In August 2010, Mahler came home. Soon, she was working out at the local gym — and was even on the slopes at Lake Tahoe. Today, she must avoid direct exposure to the sun, avoid uncooked seafood and remain mindful of situations that could compromise her immune system. But that’s an easy tradeoff from the way things were.
“I had quite an adventure,” she says, praising her doctors at Cedars-Sinai and Kaiser Permanente.
Her family history showed a clean bill of heart health, so the diagnosis came as a shock. She presented a symptom shared by many women with heart disease: shortness of breath that made climbing stairs impossible. Through aggressive intervention, her doctors kept her alive.
Things easily could have taken a different turn. “One in three women will die of heart disease,” Mahler says. Working with the local chapter of the American Heart Association, she now advocates for building awareness of heart disease among women. Her goal is to “paint this town red” during February’s Go Red for Women heart campaign.
“This is a role I never thought I’d be playing,” she says. But she certainly has auditioned for the part. And for that hard work, perseverance and hope, she has won rave reviews.
expo and silent auction;
luncheon and fashion show
Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines,
10950 N. Torrey Pines Road,
$150, premium seats $275
Wellness: Heart Health: By Carl H. Larsen • Photography by David Hartig