Heart transplant recipient Kelly Belanger is thankful to be healthy and active again. (Photo by Blake Belanger)

People will travel great distances for a wide variety of things – to see a loved one, to get a deal on a car, even for a special meal. For Kelly Belanger of Sutton, Vermont, traveling 200 miles to connect with the right heart specialist was well worth the trip. Getting a new heart was even better.

Being active always has been important to Kelly, now 48 years old. Even as her health slowly degraded over the years, she still headed out for hikes, swims, and other outdoor adventures. But eventually her physical abilities no longer matched her desire.

After being diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia (a rapid heartbeat), Kelly was fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) to regulate her heart’s rhythm. The device helped save her life several times, but her health continued to decline.

In 2005, Kelly’s local cardiologist came back from a workshop in Boston where he had met Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) cardiologist Dr. Lynne Warner Stevenson. Based on what her Vermont cardiologist learned about Dr. Stevenson’s expertise and the advanced services that could be offered at a large teaching hospital, he recommended that Kelly head down to Boston to see Dr. Stevenson. Still struggling to find a remedy, Kelly took the advice. For the next several years, at least twice each year, she and her husband would drive the three-plus hours to Boston to be evaluated and treated by Dr. Stevenson and her colleagues.

Dr. Stevenson successfully managed Kelly’s symptoms during this period, but Kelly’s heart quality continued to worsen. Her condition ultimately weakened to the point that Dr. Stevenson recommended that a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) be implanted in Kelly to keep her heart functioning and that she be put on a heart transplant waiting list.

In February 2012, Kelly was standing in front of the lodge at Burke Mountain, waiting for her son to ski to the bottom of the slope, when she received a call from Dr. Stevenson. Kelly, who had just returned from a trip to Boston, was concerned when Dr. Stevenson asked her to come back to the hospital immediately. But Dr. Stevenson assured Kelly that it wasn’t bad news. They had a heart for her.

With a long ride ahead of them, she and her husband had to get going quickly. She left an excited lodge full of friends with a message for her son: “When he comes down, just tell him that Mom got really lucky and I’ve gone to get my heart.”

Kelly can still envision the lights of the Boston skyline as they approached the hospital that evening. “This is happening,” she recalls thinking. “I’m going to have a life.”

But she also couldn’t help thinking about the donor’s family, especially when she woke up after the surgery, performed by a team led by Dr. Gregory Couper. “I started crying, and not for me, for them,” says Kelly.

The transplant and recovery were successful, and in February 2013, for the one-year anniversary of the surgery, Kelly decided to do something special. After working with a trainer for several months, she headed back to the mountain with her husband, daughter, and son. But this time she was there as a skier, not a spectator.

“It was well worth it, and I had a great time,” says Kelly. “Two years ago, I used to drive them to the mountain and I’d just have to park there. I couldn’t even go up the steps.”

Kelly wants the donor’s family to know how thankful she is and how much it means to be active and be more involved in her family’s life.

“It was like opening a window,” explains Kelly. “You can’t keep me in the house. We’ve been going everywhere. I think my life is just going to keep opening up more and more each day.”

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– Chris P

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