Tiffany Dunn of Westbrook holds her 2-year-old daughter, Isla, on Friday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

This is the Mother’s Day Tiffany Dunn has been living for.

“I’m excited to have some steaks on the grill, play in the yard,” Tiffany, 33, said with a happy laugh during an interview on Friday. “It’s going to be my first time untethered to anything. All the pictures that I’ve had in the last two years, I’ve had a bag strapped around me.”

Tiffany and her husband, Mike, have a little girl name Isla, who will turn 3 in July. Someday when she’s older, little Isla will come to understand the full story of how she came into this world. At the center of the tale, she’ll find a superhero – also known as Momma.

“It all started with her,” Tiffany said.

It was the summer of 2018. Tiffany – 34 weeks pregnant, working as an administrative secretary for the Portland school department and one semester into earning her bachelor’s degree in social work at the University of Southern Maine – was a busy woman preparing, like any expectant mother, to get a lot busier

But with her due date just over a month on the horizon, things were not going well. She felt constantly short of breath, her ankles were swollen and her blood pressure was too high – all attributable, or so she thought, to the rigors of late-stage pregnancy.

Then one July morning, while heading to work from her home in Westbrook, her dizziness and labored breathing prompted her to detour to Walgreens on Portland’s Marginal Way, where she asked the pharmacist to take her blood pressure. Within a few hours, she was at Maine Medical Center’s labor and delivery department, where they told her she needed an emergency C-section.

Why?

“You’re in heart failure,” a nurse told her.

“Whaaat?” Tiffany replied, trying to quell her instant panic. Was she about to die? Was her baby OK? What was happening?

It’s called peripartum cardiomyopathy, a rare type of heart failure that strikes in the final weeks of pregnancy or in the months immediately following childbirth. It impedes the heart’s ability to pump enough blood and, if a woman is lucky, resolves over a period of months without serious complications.

Tiffany’s heart was pumping only about half the normal amount of blood, making the C-section a risky procedure. But Isla’s birth went off without a hitch and Tiffany, under the care of MaineHealth’s Advanced Heart Failure Program, forged ahead.

She continued with her schooling – she was on maternity leave from work – but still struggled from time to time with her breathing and stamina.

One evening in March of 2019, sitting in her living room with Isla, Tiffany suddenly felt extremely lightheaded. Then her left leg went numb. She called upstairs to Mike, who took one look at her and called his mother, Sue Dunn, to come from her home in nearby Buxton and watch Isla while he took Tiffany to the hospital.

By the time her mother-in-law arrived, Tiffany could no longer speak. Sue, a retired nurse, recognized the symptoms of stroke and immediately called 911.

One blood clot in Tiffany’s leg required surgery. Another, in her brain, dissipated on its own with medication. But the doctors were worried – her heart was now pumping at only about a quarter of its normal capacity and without mechanical assistance to increase her blood flow, the risk of more strokes or worse loomed large.

Enter the LVAD, short for left ventricular assist device. It’s a small pump implanted in the heart that runs off external batteries the patient carries in a bag or shoulder pack, along with a monitor that sounds a series of alarms if something goes wrong.

“It will be a bridge to a transplant,” the medical team told her that May before opening her heart to insert the device.

“Whaaat?” Tiffany replied once again. Here she was, celebrating her first Mother’s Day in a hospital bed with Isla on her lap, and now she had to get her head around a heart transplant?

The LVAD worked and life went on. With the help of USM’s Disability Services Center, Tiffany quietly informed her professors of her condition and the paraphernalia she had to lug around all the time. She also carried a card alerting emergency responders to not apply chest compression in the event of heart failure – doing so with the pump in her chest could be a recipe for disaster.

One day in class, Tiffany heard a loud beeping sound and, like everyone else in the room, wondered if it was a fire alarm. Then she realized it was coming from her LVAD bag.

“Oh my gosh, it’s me,” she realized as she grabbed the bag, scurried out of the classroom and checked the monitor, which told her she needed fluids.

“So I silenced the alarm and went and got some water,” she said, “And then I went back to class!”

Another time, also during a class, she inadvertently leaned on her bag and hit a test button that activates all five of the LVAD’s alarms at once. Again Tiffany rushed out, reset the device, then came back in and quietly took her seat.

“It was … awkward,” she said with a chuckle.

It’s hard to say life was good, what with the LVAD and her need to take it easy all the time. When they went to the playground, it was always Mike who pushed Isla on the swing while Tiffany sat and watched. And it was Mike who jumped in the water at Portland’s Riverton Pool to guide Isla through her early swimming lessons while Tiffany, who couldn’t go anywhere near water, looked on.

Adding insult to injury, Tiffany developed an infection at the site where the wire from the batteries entered her abdomen. Antibiotics helped some, but she went about her business in near-constant pain and fear that the infection might spread anywhere, anytime and with potentially dire consequences.

Yet Tiffany was still here, still raising a child, still going to school, still hoping that things would someday get better. Last September, they did: Word came that she’d finally qualified for a transplant and could expect the lifesaving call with the next six to nine months.

On March 11, the phone rang. A heart was available at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Sue rushed over to watch Isla. Tiffany and Mike packed their bags and made a beeline south. But hours later, as she was being prepped for surgery, it all fell apart – after finding cancerous lesions in one of the donor’s other organs, doctors called the procedure off.

“I was so devastated,” Tiffany said. “I hadn’t really thought of that as a possibility.”

She’d emailed her teachers that she was off to get a new heart. She’d posted on Facebook to friends and family – including her parents and siblings in California, where she grew up – that the big day was finally here.

Now here she and Mike were, driving back to Maine, numb with disappointment.

“But least I know I’m in the running and I know that I must be near the top of the list,” Tiffany, ever the optimist, thought to herself. “So hopefully it’ll come soon.”

It did. The phone rang again on March 30 with news of another donor. This time, the hourslong surgery went off without complications.

Privacy protocols prevent Tiffany from knowing anything about her donor, although there will come a time when she can write the donor’s family and they can decide whether to receive her message.

But she’s eternally grateful to the donor and family who looked beyond their loss to make her transplant possible, to the doctors and nurses in Maine and Massachusetts who kept her alive all this time, to her instructors at USM, to her always-at-the-ready husband and mother-in-law, and to all the friends and family who have helped with everything from home-cooked meals to a GoFundMe page.

And then there’s Isla. A few weeks ago, while still in the hospital with Mike by her side, Tiffany did a live Facebook chat with her little girl, who was still staying with Sue.

Weary of all the commotion, Isla saw her mother once again in a hospital bed and pleaded for an end to it all.

“I want to go home … I want to go home … I want to go home,” she cried over and over.

After the call ended, Tiffany broken down in tears. Turning to her husband, she said, “Let’s not do that again.”

They won’t have to. Tiffany is back home now, doing fine. She graduated (on schedule) on Saturday and looks forward to starting USM’s master of social work program in June. She hopes to finish it in a year.

Today, the young family will head once again for a Mother’s Day barbecue at Sue’s home in Buxton. There will be steaks, lawn games and a new batch of family photos. But there will be no batteries, no monitor, no pump.

At the center of it all will be what makes this day so special: a little girl who these days loves to play with her toy doctor’s kit. And a young mother whose love and determination, despite her failing heart, never missed a beat.


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