The phone call Alyse Ornelas had waited five months for came at 9 p.m. as she stepped through her front door.
“It was my surgeon,” Ornelas recalls. “He said, ‘Stanford might have a heart for you. But don’t rush. Whenever you get here, you get here.’”
One of the first people she texted the news to was Cheryl Kitchen, a fellow teacher who had been on her speed-dial since Ornelas was first diagnosed with giant-cell myocarditis in September 2017. The rare disease had already landed Ornelas in the emergency room, where she lost her baby boy at 23 weeks, and sent her to Stanford by helicopter to get a ventricular assist device implanted in her chest.
But the LVAD was a temporary measure. Ornelas knew she’d need a new heart, but with her available sick leave quickly running out, she faced losing her benefits before she could get a transplant.
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That’s when Kitchen got to work.
Ornelas went on catastrophic leave, and Kitchen presented her friend’s story to a Fresno Teachers Association meeting. Their fellow teachers donated a combined 80 vacation days to make sure Ornelas wouldn’t have to worry about money.
“She’s the reason I still have a job and I’m not bankrupt,” Ornelas said. “My mom says, ‘Everyone should have a Cheryl Kitchen in their lives.’”
The pair first met as coworkers at Scandinavian Middle School, and got close through having lunch together nearly every day. During a staff meeting, Kitchen became the only person who ever felt Ornelas’ baby boy kick.
After Ornelas’ first surgery, Kitchen had been available at a moment’s notice to watch her daughter when Ornelas thought her ventricular device was malfunctioning. And in the days and weeks before the big phone call, when Ornelas had found herself too afraid of the unknown to complete the mountains of paperwork required before a transplant, it was Kitchen who shook her out of it. She convinced Ornelas to pack her bags and make her transplant plan, allowing her to move up on the waitlist. When the phone call came, Ornelas was ready.
“She texted me saying she’d finished, and I said, ‘Good, you’re an A-plus student,’” Kitchen said.
Kitchen said she felt compelled to do all she could to help Ornelas, and credited her own supportive family for encouraging her to spend time with her friend.
“We believe God gives us a purpose to help people,” Kitchen said. “And now, my 15-year-old asks to make playdates with her 3-year-old.”
The 80-plus days of donated vacation time have lasted Ornelas through multiple complications and return trips to Stanford. Now almost six months post-transplant, Ornelas is back home in Clovis.
“I’ve never seen a stronger person,” Kitchen said.
Still, Ornelas faces a lifetime of recovery. Although young heart transplant patients have good prospects, Ornelas said it’s likely she’ll have to have a second transplant in 20 years.
Another friend started a Go Fund Me to help her pay for the costs of the last 10 months, which included mandatory stays within 20 minutes of Stanford, on top of the medical care and surgeries.
The healing process also includes her now 3-year-old daughter, who has learned the names of everyone on her mom’s medical team. But she gets nervous when her mom needs to go to follow-up appointments, Ornelas said, for fear that she won’t come back.
“When she bangs her knee, she says she needs to go to Stanford,” Ornelas said. “She has high expectations.”
Someday, Ornelas would like to meet her donor’s family, if they’re amenable, and thank them.
But what Ornelas wants most is to get back to normal, and that includes resuming her duties in the classroom.
“I definitely want to get my life back,” Ornelas said. “Before this, I had a normal life, and everything changed in an instant.”
She said she and Kitchen are working with Fresno Unified to find a post that would be appropriate for her situation. In the first year after her transplant, she needs to limit her exposure to possible infections; working with a small group of students would be best.
But both she and Kitchen said they’re hopeful that a good placement will be found. Ideally, it’ll be at Scandinavian again, so the two friends can resume having lunch together.