In Iowa, panoramic views of greenery, meadows and cornfields on a hazy summer day are always a welcome sight. For Laura Richardson, seeing such a pastoral vista in June 2019 was particularly moving. After more than a year of being hospitalized at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Arizona, Laura was coming home following successful heart and kidney transplants.
The closer Laura and her husband, Don, got to her hometown of Minburn, Iowa, the more Laura shed tears of relief, reflecting on the medical odyssey that kept her away from the family members, friends and farm animals she so cherishes. Her tears also were of joy and appreciation for the host of Mayo Clinic providers who rallied to save her life as she battled numerous medical issues.
Minburn, a town of fewer than 300 residents, has a tradition of looking out for each other. When word spread that Laura was finally homeward bound, they went all-out. Laura and Don were stopped by sheriff's deputies along the highway near their home. But no tickets were issued. Instead, the deputies provided a formal escort, lights blazing, to the couple's farm. Friends and neighbors lined the road with "Welcome Home" signs. Laura, overcome with emotion, leaned out the car window to shout her thanks to the crowds.
Laura says that was the day her second life began.
Laura's medical journey began in 2007 when she developed sarcoidosis in her salivary glands. The condition causes growth of inflammatory cells, often in the lungs and lymph nodes, and it can cause serious organ damage.
By 2010, the sarcoidosis had taken a significant toll on Laura's body. Not only was her heart enlarged, she also was experiencing kidney failure. Laura had to be hospitalized in Iowa the day before Don was deployed to Afghanistan. It was an emotional blow for the entire family.
"I didn't know if I would ever see him again," Laura says. Still she mustered the energy to carry on with the chores required to run a farm. "The yards need mowing, and the animals need food. They don't care if you're sick."
Over time, Laura's condition continued to decline, causing alarming breathing problems. She struggled to walk even a few steps. Her physicians outfitted Laura with a defibrillator — a device that provides a shock to the heart when there is a life-threatening arrhythmia. "When it went off, it felt like I was touching an electric fence," Laura recalls.
Reality finally hit when her daughter found Laura face down in a manure pile on the farm. Laura was stunned when physicians delivered the news that she required both a heart transplant and a kidney transplant.
Her physicians in Iowa advised Laura to seek a medical center in a more highly populated area, where chances for getting both a heart and kidney would be better. That suggestion led Laura to Mayo Clinic in Arizona, where she arrived from Iowa by air ambulance on July 17, 2017.
"I guess (Dr. Steidley) likes a challenge. Well, he got one."Laura Richardson
One of the first people Laura met with was D. Eric Steidley, M.D., a Mayo Clinic cardiologist who agreed to take on her case. "I guess he likes a challenge," Laura says. "Well, he got one."
During a prolonged ICU stay, Laura experienced cardiac arrest twice, just a week apart. In what Laura describes as a miracle, doctors were able to revive her each time. To do so, her care team rushed Laura to emergency surgery, where she was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — a life support procedure that provides cardiac and respiratory support to the heart and lungs. She also had a ventricular assist device implanted to help pump blood to her lungs.
Because of Laura's serious condition, she was put into a medically induced coma. Physicians would intermittently wake her to check her brain function. She became a familiar face in the ICU, where at one time Don was told that Laura was the sickest person there. Don was able to gain support from other families with loved ones in the ICU. He bonded with staff as well. "We definitely felt like we were a family, and that I was part of the care team," Don says, crediting his caretaking role in part to his military service.
Near the end of 2017, Laura was brought out of her coma for good. After months of cardiac rehabilitation and physical therapy, she was able to leave the hospital. But she and Don had to remain near Mayo Clinic as they waited for a heart and kidney to become available for transplant. Months went by, and Laura spent most of 2018 in and out of the hospital, forging relationships with the many Mayo Clinic caregivers and staff who now knew her well.
It was challenging for Laura and Don to even speculate about the long wait that was likely ahead of them for both a heart and a kidney, but they maintained their optimism. "Laura never took pity on herself," Don says. "She never asked, 'Why me?'" Observing Laura's courage, Don gladly took on the role as her caregiver. Don also never complained, confirms Laura. Don said it was an honor, noting, "I am not the one in pain."
As 2018 was coming to a close, the couple's wait finally came to an end. At 10:30 p.m. on Christmas Day, the phone rang. A heart and a kidney were available for Laura.
"Laura never took pity on herself. She never asked, 'Why me?'"Don Richardson
At the hospital, word about the arrival of Laura's heart and kidney spread quickly. A steady stream of nurses, physicians and other caregivers came to Laura's room to provide hugs and congratulations as she was prepped for her surgeries. "They finally had to close my door and pull the curtain," Laura says. "But I wanted to see everyone."
As the clock ticked past midnight on that memorable Christmas, the night turned to day, and Laura's new heart was transplanted on Dec. 26, 2018. Then early on Dec. 27, her kidney transplant took place.
While it was a magical Christmas, says Laura, her joy was tempered by a nagging thought. "Someone's worst day became my best day," she says. Laura continues to wonder what kind of Christmas her donor family was having, losing a loved one. But she also expresses gratitude that the family showed such generosity and courage to recognize the power of organ donation.
After the successful transplants, there was still work ahead for Laura with rehabilitation, blood draws and exams. Some of her Mayo caregivers suggested that she stay in Phoenix for the remainder of 2019. But Laura declined. She was more than ready to return to Iowa.
That day came on June 21. The goodbyes to all of her Mayo Clinic caregivers were bittersweet, Laura says, but the day she had waited for more than a year had finally arrived, and she was eager to see her family. "My granddaughter has never known me not sick," Laura told her Mayo Clinic care team.
Two weeks after her festive welcome home, Laura was appointed grand marshal for the town's Fourth of July parade. It was a celebration of her health and perseverance. Friends and neighbors stopped to remark on her courage, adding that she deserves hero status. Laura disagrees. "I'm no hero," she says. "I just fought for my life. The real heroes are the ones who run into dangerous situations, like firemen, soldiers and police."
Now reclaiming her life at their Iowa home among her cherished family, Laura values the gifts she never expected. "The amazing staff in the ICU, all the wonderful nurses and everyone at Mayo," she says. It was those people who gave her the will to power on, despite her numerous setbacks. She adds, "There is life after transplant."