No one held their sweetheart Valentine’s Day quite like this New Jersey woman, who was able to hold her old heart through a bio-hazard bag after she received a heart transplant earlier this month.
“This is the heart that gave me life and gave me grief,” 48-year-old Lisa Salberg told InsideEdition.com.
Salberg, of Rockaway Township, received her heart transplant on Groundhog Day after years of battling hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). The disease is characterized by abnormally thick heart muscles.
Although most people with the diagnosis are able to manage the symptoms with medications for their entire life, Salberg was part of the population where the diagnosis is grimmer.
Instead of allowing doctors to dispose of the heart after the transplant, Salberg, who was diagnosed with HCM when she was 12, asked if she could take it with her.
"I’ve had patients sometimes ask if they could see it — I’ve never had anyone ask if they could retain it," Dr. Mark Jay Zucker of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center told InsideEdition.com. “At the moment, it surprised me. As I think about it now, no, it’s not inconsistent with what one might expect of Lisa."
Zucker, who has worked in transplants for the last 30 years, said he met Salberg years ago as a speaker for The Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association, an organization Salberg started after her older sister passed away from the disease more than two decades ago.
Her father, uncle, grandfather, and great aunt have also passed away from HCM, and Salberg said her daughter, niece and nephew are currently living with the disease.
“I couldn’t die,” she said. “I have to keep working on the problems, so [HCM] doesn’t bother them as much.”
Salberg suffered her first stroke when she was 21 and lost partial vision in one eye. She had her first pacemaker installed when she was 23, and her first defibrillator when she was 27.
In the last ten years, she has had numerous bouts with heart failure.
“You wouldn’t know by looking at me that I was that sick,” Salberg said. “I didn’t want to admit how sick I was becoming.”
Her health took a turn for the worse about six months ago, when she started noticing the symptoms of the disease.
“They told me, ‘your heart’s failing, this is it,’” Salberg said. “I was told I was terminally ill, and my only option was a heart transplant.”
After 71 days of waiting, Salberg received the call that changed her life, and saved it.
“She got lucky she got a donor,” Zucker said. “Her waiting time could have been significantly longer. The disease would have eventually been fatal had we not intervened.”
Salberg was then able to tell doctors not to dispose of the organ, but to freeze it to be sent to a lab in Ohio, that will use the actual heart as a mold to create 3D printed models.
“It’s hard to realize you have a disease just because you can’t see what it looks like, and it can kill you,” she said. “By having 3D copies of my heart, I can say, ‘No, look, this is what’s going on inside of you.’
“I’m giving my heart for the cause,” Salberg explained.
She said she plans to give locations running her program around the country a 3D copy of her heart to be used for educational purposes.
And while she no longer has HCM, Salberg said she had no plans to slow down with her organization.
“I’m in all the way, because now I have a better appreciation for what it’s like to have HCM. My family deserves better care, and better understanding,” she said. “Cognitively and emotionally, I’m in a better place than I’ve been in many years, thanks to my donor family.”