Renowned Riley heart surgeons gave her back her life

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Her first open heart surgery was at 19 days old. Twenty-eight years later, she had her last – a transplant


When it comes to matters of the heart, Klarissa Wooley has a soft spot for Dr. John Brown and Dr. Mark Turrentine.

The renowned cardiovascular surgeons at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health have traveled a difficult road with Wooley for three decades now, as she struggled with one heart issue after another amid related and unrelated health complications, including a bleeding disorder and multiple organ failure.

So when the two physicians were honored with the state of Indiana’s Sagamore of the Wabash award recently, Wooley was front and center.

“I wouldn’t be here without either of them,” she said later, after the fanfare of that public celebration had faded.

Wooley, 33, was just 19 days old when she would first meet Dr. Brown on the operating table.

Born with a previously undetected congenital heart defect, she began having trouble eating within days of birth, then suddenly stopped breathing at just 17 days old. She was rushed to Indianapolis from her family’s home in Liberty, Indiana, on the eastern edge of the state.

That was in 1985. It would be the first of many surgeries for Wooley over the next three decades. Most were performed at Riley, two were done at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

As a little girl, Wooley spent countless days and nights at Riley. She missed school and missed her friends, but the hospital was a second home to her and her parents, Tim and Sherry Wooley.

She remembers bits and pieces, mostly thanks to pictures taken by her parents, but remarkably, she doesn’t remember ever being scared.

“I didn’t know any different,” she said by phone from her home just three miles from where she grew up in Liberty. “I didn’t have the choice to be scared.”

Her parents surely carried that burden for her.

Over the years, doctors did what they could to keep Wooley’s heart beating, but in May 2013, at age 28, she was put on the transplant list.

By then, after years of surgeries and setbacks, she wasn’t sure she had a lot of fight left in her.

“I was just so worn down and so sick it was just ‘whatever’ at that point,” she said. She’d already had to drop out of culinary school in Indianapolis, further delaying her dream of becoming a pastry chef.

By September 2013, she was back in the hospital, waiting for a new heart.

“I was so used to being in the hospital my whole life it almost felt better to be there than to be at home at that time,” she said. She didn’t allow herself to get too hopeful.

There were many days, she said, “I thought this is never going to happen.”

And then she got the news. A donor heart had been found. The first thing she wanted to do was call her mom.

On Oct. 2, 2013, with Drs. Brown and Turrentine at her side, Wooley got her new heart.

Since that day, Wooley has been making up for lost time. She went back to school and earned her culinary degree. She works three jobs and operates a cake decorating business on the side.

Someday, she said, she wants to open her own restaurant, a dream that wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of an organ donor and his or her family, as well as the skill and compassion of her Riley care team.

Riley’s congenital heart surgery program recently earned a top rating from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, one of a dozen out of 119 programs in the country to receive the three-star ranking.

And now Wooley hopes to be able to give back a little of what she has gained. She wrote a letter to be forwarded to her donor’s family on the year anniversary of her transplant. She didn’t hear back, but that’s not uncommon. Perhaps in the coming year, she’ll write another.

“I just want to say thank you.”

She also visits Riley whenever she gets the chance, despite working long hours.

“It’s a huge part of my life.”

-- By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist

Email: mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

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