By Emma Mann and Maureen Gilmer, email@example.com
“It was really awesome to be at the graduation party and tell people in person that we got the call,” Christina Fromm said as she sat by her daughter last week at Riley Hospital for Children.
“The call” was lifechanging. On the other end was transplant coordinator Debbie Murphy, who was on call that July weekend, with the long-awaited news that there was a donor heart waiting for Fromm’s daughter, Abigail.
There was only one problem. And it was a big one for Abi, 18. She was about to host her high school graduation party. If you remember being a teenager, perhaps you can understand her perspective.
Excited for the heart but a little bummed that she would have to miss the party, she negotiated a little more time. Doctors at Riley found a way to ensure that Abi was able to celebrate not only her new heart but her high school graduation, two huge milestones for the Fort Wayne teen.
As long as she cut the graduation party short and arrived at Riley by 8 that evening, she could surprise her party attendees with the news, giving those close to Abi and the Fromm family even more of a reason to celebrate.
This call came three months after the first call received back in April, when Abi was set to receive a transplant, but Riley doctors rejected the heart. So instead of spending the weekend in surgery, Abi danced the night away at her senior prom.
In fact, Abi had been dancing through life with seemingly no symptoms or clues that she even had a heart condition for nearly 17 years. She played the saxophone in her high school’s marching band and played in the backup band for show choir. When she was younger, she played softball and basketball.
In February 2022, she began experiencing fatigue and shortness of breath and went to a hospital close to home in Fort Wayne, before having her care transferred to Riley in Indianapolis.
Abi was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, which causes the heart chambers (ventricles) to thin and stretch, making it hard for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. Initially, there was no conversation about transplant, because medication can manage a dilated cardiomyopathy diagnosis in some patients.
In Abi’s case, however, medication was not the answer. In May 2022, she had an LVAD (a ventricular assist device that helps pump blood from the lower chambers of the heart to the rest of the body) placed by Dr. Mark Turrentine to get her through until it was time for a transplant.
Being in the hospital two hours from home for weeks at a time was rough for the teen and her family. Her dad, Alan, would visit every weekend, but he had to go back to Fort Wayne for work during the week.
“It was hard on everyone in my family,” Abi said, including her young niece and nephew, whom she adores.
Riley cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Jeremy Herrmann, who performed Abi’s transplant with assistance from Dr. Mark Rodefeld, said the teen’s heart likely was deteriorating over time, even though she wasn’t aware of the problem.
“We see patients every year like Abi who reach their teenage years and something dramatic or even catastrophic happens, and it is discovered their heart is very weak,” Dr. Herrmann said. “Over the last few years, one option we’ve had is to support some patients with a mechanical device called LVAD, in this case allowing Abi to go home and finish high school before being listed for transplant.”
While often there is no obvious cause, dilated cardiomyopathy can be genetic or the result of a virus, the surgeon said.
Turns out, Christina Fromm suffered cardiac arrest several years ago, and like Abi, she had no previous symptoms and did not know she had a heart condition.
“It was quite a bit for (Abi) to have to deal with,” Christina said. “I guess the first night was really hard because they said I only had a 10 percent chance of surviving.”
At the time, Christina was diagnosed with giant cell myocarditis, but when Abi started having heart issues, it was determined that Christina actually had cardiomyopathy.
Now, mother and daughter can appreciate what each has gone through.
“I think I went through it to be able to help her,” Christina said. “She also helped me a lot.”
For Abi, who has two older brothers, her mom’s journey was another reason to pursue a career in the medical field.
Abi has known for years that she wanted to be a nurse, but after seeing her mom be cared for in the hospital and experiencing her own medical hurdles, it solidified exactly what she wanted to do and where she wanted to do it.
“I hope to work here on the heart floor,” Abi said.
That’s the kind of news Dr. Herrmann likes to hear.
“I think it’s powerful for Abi to take her personal journey and handle that in a way that she can help people going forward in her career,” he said.
It gives hope to those on their own journey when they can see others who have been through the same challenges.
The July 24th surgery went so well that Abi was discharged from Riley earlier this week to the Ronald McDonald House, where she will stay with her mom and complete rehab at the Center of Life for Thoracic Transplant at IU Health Methodist Hospital before going home.
“She came into surgery highly motivated and ready to make the most of her new heart,” Dr. Herrmann said. “I think that really carried her through her hospital stay. The donor heart was excellent. I don’t think there’s any more we could have asked of her during that period.”
Abi said her new heart beats louder than her old one, and she looks forward to getting back to the things she loves without being tied to a machine. That includes swimming, something she hasn’t been able to do for nearly two years, as well as working and thinking about college once her recovery is complete.
The nursing staff and doctors have made Riley home for Abi and her family, while helping her navigate her diagnosis and transplant.
She has connected with many nurses, including Kacy May, Danielle Sullivan, Sarah Crider and Connie Neuzerling, as well as child life specialist Courtney Lyon and transplant coordinator Maegan Boehm.
Cardiologist Dr. Megan Wilde gets a special shout-out for her support over the past year and a half.
“I love Dr. Wilde,” Abi said. “She’s a huge part of this journey. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her.”
While Abi hopes to make Riley her work home one day, she is ready to get back to her home in Fort Wayne and be able to spend more time with her family.
Asked what Abi can expect when she gets home, Alan Fromm jokingly replied, “a lot of laundry and dishes.”
Seriously, he said, he is excited for his daughter and looks forward to seeing her achieve her goals and continue her education.
“It’s been a long road, but I’m full of joy now,” he said. “I’m just praising the Lord that she finally got to this point.”
The Fromm family, who lean on their faith to guide them through the good days and the bad, want to send a special thank-you to the donor family for their gift and their sacrifice.
“That's been the toughest part,” Alan said. “I have a heavy heart for that family. I hope someday they’ll want to meet us, meet Abi.”
Without the donor family, none of this would be possible, Christina said.
“The lives they saved are absolutely amazing,” Abi agreed. “I’m just very, very, very thankful.”
Riley Children’s Health is ranked among the best in the country for cardiology and heart surgery by U.S. News & World Report.
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org