Heart transplants are incredible feats of medicine and amazing gifts of love. Imagine the miracle of receiving one, then try to imagine receiving two.
Paulina Nieto doesn’t have to imagine it. She has lived it. At 19 years old, the Columbus, Indiana college student is already on her third heart.
Born in Mexico, Paulina was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. She underwent her first transplant at age 2 at Riley Hospital for Children, with Dr. Mark Turrentine as her surgeon.
Her parents, Ramiro and Maria Nieto, were blessed to have their little girl back in their arms and excited to see her grow into a beautiful young woman.
But 14 years later, Paulina was back on the transplant list, her donated heart giving out when she was a junior in high school. The odds of being matched with another heart were slim.
She missed most of her junior year at Columbus East High School, but she eventually was transplanted again at age 16 at Riley. And once again, Dr. Turrentine was her surgeon.
“It was a shock to me that I had to have another (transplant) at such a young age,” Paulina said. “But going back to Riley was like going back to family – I’ve known them my entire life. And when they told me Dr. Turrentine would be my surgeon, it made me really happy.”
Still, the months in and out of the hospital were not without pain and fear. Among the people helping the teenager sort through her emotions was art therapist Cassie Dobbs.
“Paulina was easy to work with because she already liked art,” Dobbs said, as the two women reconnected over an art-making session in the Child Life Zone last week.
“We consider everyone an artist; we just find the material that they can work with to be successful,” she said. “But Paulina expressed herself very easily through art. It was very natural to her.”
For her part, Paulina said she liked the way Dobbs incorporated therapy into the art session, “not in a sneaky way but very nonchalant,” she said. “It was not intimidating, kind of like working with a friend.”
Don’t confuse this therapy with traditional arts and crafts. Riley’s two full-time art therapists are not just artistic. As the name implies, they are therapists as well. They are master-level mental health counselors who specialize in making art.
“We know making art is inherently therapeutic, but the benefit of having an art therapist on staff is the therapeutic relationship that we build with our patients,” Dobbs explained.
So much of what a child endures in a hospital is dictated by their illness or injury and is out of their control. But working with an art therapist is a choice, Dobbs said.
“When we come into a room, it’s therapeutic already because they want us there. Art-making can be fun, and it’s also very expressive. Art is another outlet for them to express how they’re feeling.”
Paulina, who is studying psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus, enjoyed her art therapy sessions with Dobbs so much that she is leaning toward a career in the same profession.
“I love art, and I like learning how the mind works.”
Part of that no doubt is a result of the health crises she confronted over the years. But Paulina also said her transplants have led to her becoming a more joyful person.
“I used to be more of an introvert, but this has definitely changed me for the better. I realize life is short.”
Paulina’s parents, Ramiro and Maria, were watching from the back of the room as their daughter worked on a painting with Dobbs.
“She’s been sick since she was two months old,” Ramiro said. “So it has been really difficult for us to go through this process with her. It’s been up and down, but without the support we have from Riley, we probably wouldn’t make it.”
Riley’s congenital heart surgery program recently received a top, three-star rating from The Society for Thoracic Surgeons. It is one of only a dozen in the country to receive the designation.
– By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist