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Unlikely group of teens lose their hearts, become friends

Families shocked that common flu-like symptoms led to heart transplants

SALT LAKE CITY — They sat around the clinic comparing medication regimens, stories from the operating room, bruises from the many pokes and piercings of various IVs and, of course, their scars.

They even joked about the names they've been called since the prednisone kicked in, causing their faces to swell.

And then there are the bingo prizes they've won during their hospital stays. A passer-by would never assume each patient has yet to reach the ripe old age of 16.

"Who would have thought a bunch of teenagers would be talking about pills?" the oldest of four heart transplant recipients, Joey Carpio, said. The way he tells it, ninjas are a big part of the story, but they are a part of everything in his life — he's 15.

Truth is, Joey is lucky to be alive.

After a couple weeks of feeling stomach pains and vomiting every once in a while, the Idaho teen was rushed to Primary Children's Medical Center, via medical jet, where he later received a heart transplant. He waited one month for the new heart and has been rebounding ever since.

"He's doing better than expected, as if he hadn't had a transplant," his mom, Mandi Carpio said. She didn't expect for it to happen at all, not to mention so quickly.

The story is much the same for three other adolescents, who also received a second chance at life within the same month or so that Joey did.

The bittersweet reality is that summer is trauma season for the hospital, in more ways than one, as the majority of transplants happen when kids are typically more active outdoors and likely participating in more risky activities, said hospital spokeswoman Bonnie Midget.

Primary Children's cardiac program is one of the best in the business for children in the Intermountain region of the country and on average, performs about 10 heart transplants each year, so four in one month's time — during the busiest season of the year — isn't all that unusual.

"It's nice to know you're not the only person going through it," said Maya Fullmer-Silvera, who was also experiencing common, flu-like symptoms prior to a full-blown heart transplant on July 7.

"That's something that happens to someone else's kids," said her dad, Joe Fullmer. The family was caught by surprise when a new heart showed up in just a week and a half, much more quickly than the three to six months she was promised. "We weren't quite ready but her heart had been getting worse, so it was good."

Maya is now looking forward to getting back on the low beam, as she loves and excels at gymnastics.

Primary Children's Medical Center performs more than 600 cardiothoracic surgeries, including 300 open heart procedures and more than 700 cardiac catheterizations, each year. The outpatient cardiology clinic is open seven days a week and is always bustling, Midget said. Patients return on a dwindling weekly and monthly schedule, based on their individual performance, but all four youths were there Monday for a follow-up visit.

"It's a friendship I hope we won't lose," said Abby Doman, 12. She collapsed May 18 during a typical workout in gym class. Abby's teachers performed CPR for up to nine minutes and medical personnel shocked her heart twice once they arrived at the girl's St. George school.

Abby, who "went from being 100 percent perfect to being on the transplant list just like that," hasn't been home since that day and remains on oxygen for some slight asthma issues aside from the transplant. She did, however, recently get the OK from doctors to go shopping.

"When I walk, I don't get tired now," she said, adding that she's looking forward to going running again. Otherwise, she's blacked out most of what happened and is focused on a full recovery for a life that will always include a 6-inch-long scar at the center of her chest.

All the kids are looking forward to starting a new year in school, even if some, like 12-year-old MiaBella Brickey, won't be back until January at the soonest.

A black belt in Soo Bahk Do, Korean martial arts, MiaBella can't wait to return to her once active lifestyle.

She suffers from giant cell myocarditis, a rare but lethal heart disorder usually diagnosed at a young age. Few survive long enough to receive a new heart, but MiaBella, who is the first with the condition to be treated at Primary's and waited just three days for a new heart, has already beaten the odds.

"Anyone who tells me their kid has a temperature and is throwing up, I say, 'take them to the ER,' because that's how Mia's started," said Heidi Brickey, who watched her daughter compete in a soccer tournament the weekend before she was hospitalized. "It can turn out to be a big, big deal."

MiaBella spent 72 days in the hospital, not due to the heart transplant but because of complications that resulted from a sudden cardiac arrest and the days that ensued, putting her into hypothermic treatment — a cold-induced coma — that ultimately saved her life.

"I don't remember muc,h but I do remember having friends by me to share in it," she said.

The now-brittle girl, who uses a wheelchair to get around for the time being, lost 17 pounds of muscle mass throughout the ordeal and is anxious to get back to a normal life — as normal as it can be with someone else's heart.

"If I could recommend one thing to anyone, it would be for them to be an organ donor," Heidi Brickey said, adding that she'll definitely be seeking out the donor's family to offer her profound thanks.

"It's the greatest thing you can do with your life. It is passing on the gift of life."


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