Heart-lungs transplant recipient: Mayo Clinic’s care allowed me to experience life to its fullest
Jackie Zachmeyer ruminated on each word she penned in the letter. How does one define herself to people she’s never met? A sister. A daughter. An aunt. A wife. A godmother. A wish granter for children with medical needs.
Jackie's note of gratitude to her donor family answered many questions. But the one question she couldn’t quite answer after her heart-lung transplant is why. As in, why was she still here? You know, alive?
To be sure, her faith, friends and family had played integral, meaningful roles. Those people and beliefs raised her hopes and spirits in dark hours. But Jackie's recollection of her medical journey over 54 years is matter-of-fact.
"I was in a pretty bad state," Jackie says.
There had been close calls. Her implanted defibrillator went off six times in one night at her home in Illinois. Another time she contracted a viral illness. The illness caused physicians at Mayo Clinic in Rochester to intubate her for a week.
"The odds in many of these situations were not good. Many years ago, I heard a cancer survivor say, 'If someone gives you a 10% chance of recovery — be the 10%.' That resonated with me. Someone has to be the 10%."
Jackie was born with a broken heart, a complex congenital heart condition. Jackie’s pediatrician told her parents that Jackie had an enlarged heart. She might not live to be a teenager.
At 5 months old, she had surgery in Chicago for coarctation — a narrowing of a short section of the aorta. But even from the beginning, Jackie proved much tougher than anyone expected.
"I'm very competitive," she says.
At 13 years old, she had a cardiac catheterization. It ensured the surgery was still allowing sufficient blood supply for an adult. She even passed a stress test. It allowed her to play high school sports, including her favorites — basketball and volleyball.
After college, Jackie took a job with John Deere. She lived in the Mississippi River town of Moline, Illinois. She had stopped seeing a cardiologist on a regular basis because things had been normal.
When she first started having symptoms that later turned out to be atrial fibrillation, she didn't know they were related to her congenital heart condition. Even her local cardiologist felt it wasn't anything major.
Her general practice physician concluded her prior cardiac disorder might be the cause for the symptoms. The physician referred Jackie to Mayo Clinic's Adult Congenital Heart Disease group, a part of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine.
There, Jackie met cardiologist Heidi M. Connolly, M.D. After a full battery of tests, Jackie got a new diagnosis.
"I can remember it like it was yesterday," says Jackie of their meeting in 1994. "Dr. Connolly walked in and told me, 'This is not a small problem. This is significant.'"
Mayo Clinic determined she would someday need a heart-lung transplant. Her heart muscle was stiff, causing pressure to build in her lungs. Mayo Clinic's multidisciplinary team went to work. They wanted to keep Jackie's heart and lungs healthy in order to postpone a transplant as long as possible.
"We got into a regimen of medication that allowed me to live a very normal, active life," Jackie says. "I continued to see Dr. Connolly at least once every year. But I was able to travel around the world multiple times and continue to progress in my career at John Deere."
Life was great for Jackie and her husband, Mike. They lived overseas, and John Deere accommodated Jackie's trips back to Mayo Clinic.
"We had the opportunity to spend New Year's Eve all over the world — one year in Berlin, one year in London, one year in Paris. I went everywhere for work too — Israel, Brazil, China, India. I was so fortunate to get to visit so many places and experience so many different cultures."
A Normal Day
Things changed in April 2020.
Jackie felt she had come down with food poisoning and ended up going to the emergency room in Moline. She tested negative for COVID-19 but felt awful and ended up in the ICU.
After Jackie had spent a few days in the hospital, her local physicians felt she had stabilized and sent her home.
The next night, her defibrillator pacemaker went off again and again. Mayo Clinic, which remotely monitors the implant, called her early the next day. Jackie had no idea the defibrillator had fired six times.
Both Jackie and her care team agreed she should get to Mayo Clinic right away.
"That started the first 10 days I spent at Saint Marys. That's when Mayo Clinic determined I had sustained some major damage to my heart," she says. "After all those shocks and you're still around, you get thinking, why am I still here?"
Jackie regained enough strength to return home. But time was running out. Her trips to Mayo Clinic became routine as fluid built up in her body. In February 2021, the transplant registry accepted Jackie onto the waiting list. She was in line for a new heart and lungs.
In April 2021, while at Mayo for more testing, she fell ill again. This time, she was unable to breathe. Physicians placed her on a ventilator.
"It was pretty touch and go by this point," says Jackie. "I don't remember much. I was so critical they had to take me off the transplant list. But after seven days, I was off the ventilator and coming back."
Jackie grew strong enough to return to the transplant list later that month. Six days after returning to the list she received unexpected, news — a heart and pair of lungs were available for a transplant.
"Saying thank you to the donor family does not seem strong enough to express the gratitude I have for their generosity," Jackie says. "Their organ donation allows me to continue to experience life with my family and friends and share my story and my blessings in life."
Jackie received a transplant certificate from Mayo Clinic following her surgery. It includes a number — 31.
"I'm number 31 in all Mayo Clinic's history for a heart-lung transplant. That puts it in perspective," Jackie says. "If it weren't for Dr. Connolly and the Mayo Clinic transplant care team, I guarantee you I wouldn't have had the career I had or experiences in life I had."
Even before her transplant, Jackie decided to make a gift to Mayo Clinic for the exemplary care she received over her 25 years as a patient.
"I thought that was a good idea, to advance the research in cardiac care," Jackie says. "I've benefited so much from the research Mayo Clinic does, the collaboration they have with others and more."
For her generosity, Mayo Clinic recognizes Jackie and Mike Zachmeyer as Major Benefactors.
"It's so gratifying that our team-based approach and patient-centered research allowed us to improve Jackie’s life and the lives of many patients like her," Dr. Connolly says. "We are all incredibly grateful to Jackie and Mike for their support of Mayo Clinic enabling us to continue our work and enhance the lives of future patients like Jackie."
Jackie has routine checkups at Mayo Clinic to make sure her body isn't rejecting her new organs. She's returning to the things she enjoys — including spending time with her dog, Otto, and riding her horses, Annie and Charlie.
That thing about why is she still here, which she had trouble expressing as she wrote her letter to her donor’s family? Turns out, she knows after all.
"My husband and I are average people,” Jackie says. “The care I received allowed me to advance in my career and have a great professional life as well as wonderful personal experiences.”
"I'm supposed to do … this — to keep giving back and telling my story. If it weren't for Mayo Clinic, it wouldn't have happened."