Yasmin Mullings sat alone in her hospital room completing her advance directive. At 51, she had end-stage heart failure. “I knew there was a very real possibility that I would die,” Yasmin says. “One night, I called one of the nurses to get me the paperwork. It took me four hours. “I wrote out every step in great detail because I didn’t want my family to have to make those tough decisions. I remember thinking the very least I could do was to take that burden away from them.” The document remains filed away, unused.
A Life Altered
Months earlier, Yasmin had been in the courtroom fighting for justice as a county prosecutor. After long days at the office, she dedicated herself to physical fitness and was an avid marathoner. But when an infection seized her heart, Yasmin went from long-distance training runs to fighting for her life. Yasmin turned to local doctors for an answer, but after several appointments, testing, a failed procedure and medications that made her feel worse, Yasmin decided enough was enough.
Upon recommendations of her close friend and her sister, Yasmin made the drive from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Mayo Clinic where she met with John A. Schirger, M.D., a cardiologist.
“He talked to me, and for the first time I understood what was happening,” Yasmin recalls. “I was getting complete answers and felt like there was a plan in place. He was hearing me and was adjusting the plan based on me, not based on what it should be or could be, and I thought, ‘This is the guy I want in my corner.’ At that point, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.”
After talking with Yasmin, running another battery of tests and consulting with colleagues, Dr. Schirger confirmed that she would need a heart transplant.
“There was nothing I could do to make myself better,” Yasmin says. “I couldn’t run myself better. I couldn’t work myself better. I just had to have complete trust in them telling me what needed to happen. But it wasn’t a feeling of being helpless.
“My physicians gave me a feeling of coming alongside me, and for every question and every concern they came along and walked the journey with me. At Mayo you have doctors who have the ability to consult with professionals of the highest caliber in every single area.”
Yasmin’s health was worsening by the day, and her care team in Rochester knew she might not make the six- to 12-month wait in Minnesota. Yasmin agreed to transfer to Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus, where her wait for a transplant could be shorter.
Yasmin’s Gift Heart
On July 20, 2016, Yasmin received what she calls her gift heart.
It’s someone else’s tragedy that creates an opportunity for us, and that’s why we call it a gift,” says Yasmin. “It’s someone giving you something that you have no way of repaying. It’s unexpected and unearned. The courage, the humanity, the grace — it just amazes me. It was because someone has died and was willing to give that I would be able to live.”
Yasmin says she’ll always be grateful to her donor for choosing to give lifesaving organs and to her care team for going the extra mile.
“From the person helping me out of my car, to the person helping me find my way to the next appointment, to the doctors and nurses — everyone at Mayo Clinic is there to make my care better,” she says. “I don’t know any place, from a five-star hotel to a restaurant I’ve experienced, that’s so dedicated to the same mission. It’s individualized care.”
A New Outlook
"The kindness and compassion from the nurses and doctors and all the people who helped me made the journey so much more humane, and that's something that changes you from the inside out and you have to pass that on."Yasmin Mullings
Although she doesn’t know who her donor was, Yasmin says she has a soul connection that gives her a sense of responsibility “to live in a way that brings honor to this amazing person who has shared their heart with me.”
Today, just a few months after the second anniversary of her heart transplant, Yasmin says life is about recognizing and accepting limitations, not pushing past them.
“As a marathoner, I prided myself on physical fitness. You think that pushing past the limits is what you’re supposed to do. You force yourself past the challenges — you run a little longer, you run a little faster and you train a little harder to achieve a goal. But that’s not how recovery from a transplant is. Every time I push past and work harder and tough it out, I actually set my recovery a little further back. So I’m learning to establish different goals and work within my new limits.”
Although she’s completed a couple of races since her transplant, Yasmin has found they leave her feeling physically exhausted. So she’s discovered a way to continue doing what she loves by running shorter distances on a treadmill. She’s also made some modifications to her work. No longer able to be back in the courtroom as a trial attorney, Yasmin enjoys a full workload reviewing and evaluating felony cases. But even with all of these adjustments, she says the biggest change has been her outlook on life.
“When something picks you up and shakes your whole life, it makes you see your place in the world in a whole different way because all of it is a gift,” says Yasmin. “The kindness and compassion from the nurses and doctors and all the people who helped me made the journey so much more humane, and that’s something that changes you from the inside out and you have to pass that on.”
In her own words
"It changes you from the inside out and you have to pass that on"Yasmin Mullings
More about this story
Hope and Healing Every Step of the Way
Part of Yasmin’s transplant journey at Mayo Clinic was cardiac rehabilitation, where she met Alfredo L. Clavell, M.D., a consultant in Cardiovascular Diseases.
“We are simpatico,” Yasmin says of Dr. Clavell, who shares Yasmin’s passion for running.
Before her transplant, Yasmin was a competitive runner, completing eight marathons and 16 half- marathons. Following her heart transplant at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Clavell has helped advise her on how to safely incorporate her passion for running.
Yasmin and Dr. Clavell both participated in a 10-mile race in October 2017.
“He waited for me at the end to make sure I was OK. He went in to work afterward and told everyone that I did it. They are good to me. They are super good to me,” says Yasmin.
While Yasmin has recently paused from races, she’s finding a way to keep running in her life with shorter efforts on a treadmill.
“I’m two years post-transplant, and every bit of this journey is not easy,” she says. “Actually, a lot of it is downright difficult. Life is a huge adjustment, but the bottom line is, it is life.”
Yasmin continues regular checkups with her care team at Mayo. After surgery, transplant patients need to take medications to prevent their body’s immune system from rejecting the new organ. Unlike many individuals who receive transplants, Yasmin was considered very healthy up until a few months before receiving her new heart, so she still has a robust immune system. This means that her body needs more immunosuppressive drugs because she metabolizes them faster. Yasmin’s care team monitors her medications closely to help keep her out of rejection.
And while she says she doesn’t know exactly what the future has in store, she’s come a long way since that night sitting alone filling out her advance directive.
“Two more Thanksgivings, Christmases, birthdays, dancing at my sister’s wedding — these are all things those two years have given me,” says Yasmin, who released balloons with friends and family to celebrate the anniversary of her transplant. “It’s the date that I got a new life.” ■
Michele Halyard, M.D., began her journey as a radiation oncologist at Mayo Clinic 36 years ago. Today, she is recognized as one of the most influential and impactful leaders in the movement toward health equity.
Lionel Kankeu Fonkoua, M.D., is an oncologist with Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center who specializes in the treatment of gastrointestinal cancers. He is leading a clinical trial focused on the immigrant African and Asian communities of Minnesota with a high prevalence of one type of liver cancer.
Black people in America are about twice as likely to get Alzheimer's disease and other memory loss disorders. To better understand why, Floyd B. Willis, M.D., is helping the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Research Center recruit participants into research studies.