By Robb Murray
---- — She was all smiles when a nurse wheeled her away for surgery.
"She just told us she loved us," Christopher Sandeen said of his daughter, Alyssa Sandeen, who was about to enter an operating room for the second heart transplant of her short life. "It wasn't goodbye. It was 'See ya later!'"
Alyssa Sandeen's transplant began at 7:15 p.m. Thursday. By 10 p.m., a doctor let them know the heart had been placed in her chest. By 3:30 a.m. Alyssa was back in the intensive care unit at St. Marys Hospital. Family was allowed in to see her at 4 a.m.
He said his daughter was still sedated at that time, but later in the day she was able to respond to basic commands, and was even asking for water.
Everything so far has gone without a hitch, Sandeen said. The family was told the heart is a young one, and came from somewhere in the region, although the family isn't sure how large the region is or how far the heart may have had to travel to get to Rochester.
"I'm shocked it's been going this good," he said. "Last time there were a lot of ups and downs."
When she was just 8 years old, Sandeen was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle that caused her heart to grow four times its normal size. Doctors at the time said she had less than a 5 percent chance of survival. She likely had a day or so to live when a little boy in Virginia was hit by a truck and died.
The 15 years she's lived with that heart is about the typical life cycle of a transplant heart. As it has weakened, Sandeen has been on the list for a second transplant heart. She's lived in the hospital since November.
This time, Sandeen said, they were getting down to the wire on Alyssa's first donor heart.
"Doctors said they were surprised how rough her heart was," he said. "It's a good thing she got it when she did because she was really going downhill."
Word spread quickly in Mankato about Alyssa getting her heart yesterday. And within a few hours, Sandeen said they had dozens of family and friends descending on Rochester in a show of support for Alyssa. He said people were coming and going all night long, but he estimated that up to 50 people came to Rochester Thursday.
Transplanted hearts, he said, are kept cool once they're removed from the donor. They need to warm up, then, before they'll start beating in the recipient's chest. In some cases, donor hearts need to be shocked to start beating. This was not the case for Alyssa's new heart.
Sandeen said his daughter was getting stir crazy in St. Marys Hospital. She only ventured outside the building twice since November, including once a few weeks ago when a nurse wheeled Alyssa and an IV pole down the street to the Cherry Berry restaurant. Being cooped up, though, was getting to her.
"It was getting her down, and she was scared. She'd ask, what if I don't get my heart?" Sandeen said. It was during these times that her mother, Lisa, was her rock.
"She'd tell Lisa, 'I'm deteriorating, my body's deteriorating,' and she'd start to cry," Sandeen said. "And Lisa was there for her ... I don't know if Alyssa could have made it without Lisa."
Assuming all goes well, Alyssa is looking at probably three weeks in the hospital and three months living in Rochester, close to the hospital in case complications arise.
Alyssa hasn't said anything yet. She can't because she has a breathing tube. But her dad said it's been fairly easy to tell what she's thinking. He said he watched her after she'd come out of sedation, touching the area on her chest where her new heart had been inserted.