JOHNSTOWN - Bonnie Miller received a special gift this holiday season - a new heart.
"I got the gift of life. What more could I ask for?" she said.
Bonnie, who lives in Johnstown and is a second-grade teacher there at Warren Street Elementary School, was a 24-year sufferer of cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart muscle becomes enlarged and thick.
Mark, left, and Bonnie Miller are shown in California.
After years of dealing with the disease, she finally got on the heart transplant list this summer, and the day before Thanksgiving, surgeons took out her old heart and replaced it with a healthy one.
It was a long road to get to that point.
Bonnie's cardiomyopathy caused her to have ventricular tachycardia - a rapid heartbeat with at least three irregular beats in a row. She controlled this with medication until March, when she went through two surgeries at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
"Bonnie's cardiologist in Schenectady sent her to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston for a procedure called a catheter ablation," said her husband, Mark. "We were due to leave after surgery, but she suffered another ventricular tachycardia the day before. They decided to perform an open-heart ablation five days later."
Mark said his wife's condition seemed like it was stable after the surgery until July, when she suffered another bout of ventricular tachycardia and had to go back to Boston to have another catheter ablation.
After the final ablation, the transplant team told Bonnie it was time for her to get on the transplant list. However, they also told her the odds of getting a heart in Boston looked slim.
"In late August, the head of the heart program in Boston told us that Bonnie was a Status 2 on the transplant list and she would not get a heart there because there weren't enough hearts to go around," Mark said.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute says roughly 2,000 heart transplants are done yearly in the United States and approximately 3,000 people are in need of a new heart on any given day. Hearts are in high demand.
Status 2 patients on the transplant list are considered the "healthiest" in their category, according to the Nebraska Medical Center. Status 2 patients are considered the least urgent transplant patients, Status 1B patients are considered moderately urgent and Status 1A patients are the most urgent.
Bonnie's doctor recommended a heart program in California at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The program has performed nearly 600 heart transplants.
"I was really nervous about having the surgery," Bonnie said. "But I was hopeful. I just wanted a heart."
By September, Bonnie was on the transplant list as a Status 2, which later dropped to a Status 1B in October, putting her closer to the front of the list.
In late November, Bonnie was told she had a heart waiting for her, only to find out hours later that it was a false alarm. Doctors had deemed the heart unfit for transplant and the Millers went home dejected.
"We were a little disappointed, to say the least," Mark said. "But we were told that once the first heart is available, we would probably get a call rather quickly for the second heart, and three days later, we got the call."
Bonnie received a healthy 24-year-old heart Nov. 27 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Bonnie, now recovering in California, says she feels great and her doctor told her the surgery went well.
"I can finally feel my pulse," she said. "I feel stronger every day. I have more energy and my heart doesn't skip beats. I haven't felt this way in years, although I'm not totally recovered."
Bonnie has to go to the hospital weekly for biopsies and blood tests to monitor any sort of rejection her body might have to the new heart. However, according to Mark, Bonnie's body has accepted the new heart completely.
"There's a scale [the doctors] go by for rejection, and zero is the best number on the scale," Mark said. "So far, all of Bonnie's biopsies have come back zero, which means that her body is accepting the heart as if it was her own, so there's no signs of any rejection at all."
Bonnie's daughter, Erica Wager, said the family is grateful Bonnie received a heart so quickly.
"We all have feelings of gratitude," Wager said. "We're very lucky that we received a heart, because if we had stayed [in Boston], it wouldn't have happened, not in the amount of time that we needed it to happen. It saved her life."
Bonnie said she's extremely grateful and relieved for her new heart, but she misses her students.
"I miss my students, not just my second-graders, but the students I had previously that are in older grades," she said. "I miss the whole Warren Street family - the other teachers, the custodians, everyone."
When the elementary school heard Bonnie missed her students, they held a special assembly Dec. 20 in her honor. Wager attended the assembly and accepted a check of $1,500 made out to Bonnie and her family to help them with expenses.
"When she heard about the assembly that Warren Street put on, she was overcome with emotion; it was very touching," Mark said. "It's been overwhelming. The support that we have received is great."
"It hit me pretty hard that they did all of that for me," Bonnie said.
Instead of doing Christmas gift exchanges in the classroom, students were encouraged to voluntarily donate money to Bonnie and her family. Warren Street Elementary School raised around $800, Principal Scott Ziomek said.
Ziomek teamed up with Dave Kruger, a fourth-grade teacher at Marie Curie Elementary School in Amsterdam, where Mark works. Kruger's students raised around $700 for the Millers.
"We know it's been financially consuming living out in California, and we wanted to help them somehow," Ziomek said. "The Warren Street family always tries to take care of each other."
"The students were unbelievable," Wager said. "It was one of the most selfless things I've ever seen. One student brought in an entire jar with every penny that he had; it was so heart-warming. We are very lucky."
Mark said he and Bonnie plan to stay in California until about March or April because the hospital has to check on her health for three months.
Bonnie hopes her doctors will give her the go-ahead to teach again after she's fully recovered.
"I'm not ready to retire yet," she said. "I'm excited to go back and see my students and continue teaching. I'm not ready to give that up yet, so if they tell me I can do it, I'm doing it."
Mark said he's incredibly thankful and relieved Bonnie now has a healthy heart.
"She got her heart the day right before Thanksgiving this year, and next year, on the one-year anniversary, it will be Thanksgiving, and we will have a lot to be thankful for."
Bonnie said she couldn't have gone through her surgery without her husband.
"I couldn't have done any of this without Mark," she said. "He's been here with me through everything. He knows all of my medical information. He sets up all of the different kinds of medication I'm currently on, which is about 25 bottles of pills with confusing directions of when and how to take them. He's been doing it all."
Mark said his family is especially thankful to the donor of Bonnie's new heart and that person's family.
"We don't know who they are and they can reach out to us whenever they want to," he said.
Bonnie said she doesn't think she'll contact the donor's family first. She said she wants it to be their decision.
"If they want to contact me first, then I'll definitely talk to them," she said. "I would tell them how grateful I am, but I also understand how difficult it probably is for them."
Mark said he and Bonnie miss their family this holiday season since everyone is on the East Coast, but they're happy with the gift Bonnie received this year.
"We didn't need anything else for Christmas. We got our present, and we'll be off to a good start in 2014," Mark said.