Henrico County woman born with heart defect gets second heart

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Just five weeks ago, Jeni Simonitis underwent her second heart transplant surgery at the VCU Pauley Heart Center.

Simonitis is now recovering at her home in Glen Allen and says that without her new heart, she wouldn’t be alive today. She told 8News it all started when she was a child.

“I was trying to be active as a kid and eventually the chest pain kept getting worse and worse,” Simonitis said. “My lips turned blue and I would pass out frequently.”

These symptoms crippled Simonitis as a child. After two cardiac arrests and weeks in the Intensive Care Unit, doctors discovered a congenital heart defect that caused her blood vessels to clump and cut off blood flow to her heart.

She was quickly placed on the transplant list and waited for nine months. On Dec. 8, 1992, at just eight-years-old, she was granted a second chance at life.

“It was a second chance,” Simonitis said. “I wouldn’t have seen graduations, proms, or anything. I wouldn’t have made it.”

Her heart lasted 25 years before her body began to reject it. In 2017, she was relisted.

Doctors say it is extremely rare for a person to undergo more than one heart transplant surgery in a lifetime, only 3 percent of heart transplants are redo transplants.

“Most of the folks who have long-term rejection end up passing away before they even have the opportunity to get a second transplant,” said Danie Tang, Cardiothoracic Surgeon at the VCU Pauley Heart Center.

Simonitis said she didn’t think a second heart was an option for her, but when she got the phone call, it was a miracle.

“I got the phone call and I was like ‘OMG, this is unreal,'” Simonitis said. “Typically the wait time is like two years.”

For her, however, it was just four months. On Dec. 29, 2017, Simonitis had her second transplant surgery.

She says two things kept her spirits high: support from loved ones and her love of VCU basketball.

She graduated from VCU and says in the hospital, she would listen to the games on the radio. Her house is filled with VCU basketball posters and she is always decked out in VCU clothing, even wearing a “you don’t want to go to war with the rams” t-shirt days after her operation.

Simonitis is now 34-years-old and is working on finding her new normal, but says she’s proud of her scars and is all smiles about her new heart and of course VCU Rams.

Valentine’s Day is National Transplant Awareness Day and if she is strong enough, Simonitis will attend the VCU Rams home basketball game as a special guest, sitting court side, and will be presented with a surprise gift.

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