Change Of Heart Support Group

A monthly story of personal strength and courage. This month's story:


The Story of Debbie Tunnacliffe

Debbie Tunnacliffe's life is an inspiration of courage and survival, and her story gives new meaning to the word "survivor." It was Valentine's Day in 1996 when Debbie, eight months pregnant with her second child, found a cancerous lump in her breast. Three days later, she gave birth to her son, Matt.

Debbie returned to the hospital for a lumpectomy. Afterwards, she received eight rounds of chemotherapy and several radiation treatments, which lasted until November of 1996; Debbie had beaten the odds.

Although Debbie had beaten the odds against breast cancer, she had another serious problem. Two days after the birth of her son, Debbie found that she was having difficulty breathing, and her heartbeat was fast and irregular. An enlarged heart from a condition known as peripartum cardiomyopathy left Debbie with only 20 percent function of her normal heart.

At age 34, Debbie once again beat the odds with a heart transplant. On Jan. 30, 1998, she received a call from her transplant surgeon, who told her that a compatible heart was available. "I was very calm when I received the call," says Debbie. "I knew that I needed a transplant and I trusted the doctors completely."

The transplant was performed at the University Hospital on the same day. After the surgery, Debbie remained in the hospital for six weeks, where she recovered from rejection and two strokes. Beating the odds again, Debbie survived.

As a young woman and mother of two, Debbie survived obstacles most people cannot imagine. "I was able to stay motivated and keep a positive outlook because I wanted my two sons, Matt and Sam, to know their mother," says Debbie. "Knowing that they are happy and healthy and wanting to be here to share in their lives has been my reason for surviving."

Despite all the challenges she faced, Debbie succeeded. In March of 1999, Debbie returned to work full time as a human resource manager -another victory!

Since then Debbie has retired from working to spend more time with her husband, Chuck, and her kids. She has also devoted more time to volunteering speaking about the issues of transplantation and organ donation, especially to middle age and high school age kids. Debbie is also on Change of Heart taskforce that meets with transplant coordinators where they talk about patient concerns. Debbie helps out at her children's schools and is very involved with her church as she is a sponsor for people who want to become Catholic. Today, she is physically active and does many of the things she loves the most - exercising, swimming, dancing, yoga and going to the gym three times a week. She speaks at her church once a year and has participated in several community functions related to organ donation.

"I'm still the same person I was before the transplant," says Debbie. "But I no longer feel the clock is ticking away or that my time here is limited. The whole experience has made me see how precious life really is."


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