Giving thanks: Tulare woman grateful for rare heart-liver transplant (video)

The Fresno BeeNovember 27, 2013 

— Gudelia Bustamante of Tulare is making her special cornbread stuffing for a turkey today because a rare heart-liver transplant operation saved her life and allowed her to celebrate another Thanksgiving Day.

"For me, it's a miracle to be here," she said.

The 58-year-old wife, mother and grandmother received the double transplant July 31 at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

Only 12 heart-liver transplants have taken place in California, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing, which manages the nation's organ transplant system. They're so rare that of 5,000 liver transplants done at UCLA, only four have involved a heart-liver transplant -- including Gudelia.

Now home in Tulare, Gudelia exercises three times a week, crochets blankets and visits her grandchildren.

The surgery left long incision marks called "the Mercedes logo" because they look like the hood ornament on Mercedes-Benz vehicles, minus the circle.

"I've got the Mercedes logo, now I want the car," Gudelia said with a smile.

Gudelia's medical saga began in mid-2012 when she fell ill with extreme fatigue and sleeplessness while visiting relatives in Los Angeles.

A physician at Tulare Regional Medical Center said she'd had a heart attack and was anemic. Furthermore, he said she had another heart attack in the hospital while waiting for a blood transfusion.

The health problems caught her family by surprise because "Gudie" had never been seriously ill before, said her husband Bob Bustamante, 60, who retired from his job as a maintenance engineer at California Dairies in Fresno to care for his ailing wife.

Gudelia, who already had diabetes, was in and out of Tulare Regional Medical Center, where she underwent treatment for internal bleeding. But then her liver began failing for unknown reasons.

The doctors sent her home, but she wound up back in the hospital for a month.

A cardiologist inserted a stent to unclog one heart artery but said most of her heart wasn't working.

In January, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and again hospitalized at Tulare Regional. "We thought we lost her," said her husband of 39 years.

He said he pushed for Gudelia to be admitted into a university hospital, and UCLA Medical Center agreed to take her; she was airlifted to Los Angeles in mid-February.

Two days later, a surgeon did an stent procedure for five hours and opened three blocked heart arteries. but said only half her heart was working. About a month later, she was discharged.

In early June she was taken back to UCLA Medical Center by ambulance.

Some doctors viewed her as a poor candidate for a heart-liver transplant due to her age and condition, and advised her to "go home and be comfortable," her husband said.

But Gudelia wasn't ready to give up.

A social worker asked her privately, "What do you want?"

"I want to live, that's all," she said.

Gudelia, who was employed for 20 years as a cafeteria worker at Tulare elementary schools, impressed the UCLA Medical Center nursing staff with her uncomplaining attitude and admired her skills as she crocheted four blankets while laid up in the Intensive Care Unit.

Her condition deteriorated and she was put on life support, including a pump to keep blood circulating to her organs, a ventilator and kidney dialysis.

While she was heavily sedated, a visitor leaned over her bed.

"Mom, I'm here," said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Samuel Bustamante, who had flown in from Germany where he's stationed.

With that, his mother woke up. Within a day, Gudelia had improved enough for the staff to disconnect the breathing tube and pump.

The family considered it a miracle.

Surgeons took it as a sign that if she got a heart-liver transplant, she'd probably survive. She was listed "Status 1-A," the most urgent category.

Gudelia, who attends two Catholic churches in Tulare and has a red prayer blanket blessed by a priest, took it as a sign from above that she'd pull through.

"When I woke up and saw my son, I knew," she said.

Three weeks later, the heart-liver transplant was performed in a 10-hour surgery led by Dr. Abbas Ardehali, professor of cardiothoracic surgery and director of the UCLA Heart Transplant program.

The family wasn't told much about the donor except that the organs came from the Midwest.

The next day, Ardehali liked Gudelia's progress. "I want her up and walking," he said.

"In the recovery of older people, they doesn't usually do as well as she's done," Ardehali said. "She's a grandmother who has a lot of great years ahead of her."

Dr. Ronald Busuttil, chairman of the surgery department who did the liver transplant, said strong family support helped her recovery.

"The family was incredibly gracious and very upbeat and optimistic," Busuttil said.

After 11 days in the hospital, Gudelia was discharged. She stayed in the Los Angeles area and then was allowed to go home after two months -- earlier than the doctors expected.

Today, she will celebrate Thanksgiving with her husband, two daughters and four of her seven grandchildren.

"I feel great. I'm teasing my grandkids again," she said. "I'm blessed."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6104, or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.

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