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A Christmas miracle: Young Hancock woman gets life-saving heart transplant

Stephanie Chapman reacts with joy after her former Hancock High School teacher, Freda Gruys brought Stephanie her JROTC jacket.
Stephanie Chapman reacts with joy after her former Hancock High School teacher, Freda Gruys brought Stephanie her JROTC jacket.

Bay St. Louis native Stephanie Chapman, 20, first found herself in a Hancock County hospital in April.

By December, her options had run out. She’d be given countless prognoses, but it seemed every solution was only short term. In the end, her life hinged on one thing — a heart transplant. And that depended on a donor.

As Christmas Eve wound down, Stephanie’s mother, Christina Chapman, got the call. Doctors had found a donor. The miracle she had been praying for had come true. Her daughter would get a new heart and it would come Christmas morning.

The former Hancock High School student had been suffering for months. At various points of time, doctors diagnosed Stephanie with an enlarged heart, a blood clot and severe liver and kidney damage. The worst possible scenario was revealed a little later. Stephanie had congestive heart failure. After several treatments spanning nine months, only one option remained — a heart transplant.

And as most women her age were sitting around the Christmas tree with family and opening presents, Stephanie Chapman was on an operating table in Texas.

Her medical story

Both Christina and her partner, Marti Boyd, have been Stephanie’s caretakers for the last 20 years. Born early, Stephanie had some learning disabilities as she got older. Her heart problems began at the end of the 2015-16 school year when she approached a teacher. Stephanie was obviously in distress.

She was taken to a hospital and released, but was soon back. A third trip to the doctor led to a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. Since April, Stephanie was in and out of hospitals in Mississippi and Louisiana. With her condition deteriorating, she was flown to a hospital in Texas in August.

Were it not for the persistence of her mother, it’s likely Stephanie never would have wound up at the Harold C. Simmons Transplant Institute at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. The center is one of the largest and most comprehensive multi-specialty transplant centers in the United States. It’s also one of the best cardiovascular hospitals in the country.

Chapman and Boyd followed. The two promptly put all their possessions in a storage unit and moved into a Texas apartment with the barest of essentials. The timing coincided with the historic Louisiana flooding. Major lanes of travel — including Interstate 10 — were under water. The two had to take a route up to Vicksburg and into Shreveport to get there.

When they arrived, they had no furniture. They used a blow-up mattress to sleep on. Low on cash, Chapman said she skipped meals, or ate crackers and peanut butter. Most of the 24 hours in a day were spent at the hospital.

Doctors attached a device to Stephanie called a left ventricular assist device, commonly referred to as a LVAD. It’s used when the patient’s heart is no longer able to pump enough blood to meet the body’s need.

Initially, her progress with the device was “amazing,” Christina said. She left the hospital and at one point was seeing her doctor once a month.

I’ve always believed in miracles. To know where’s she’s come from and to see where she is now, that is the true definition of a Christmas miracle.

Hancock High School Assistant Teacher Freda Gruys

But by December, Stephanie’s condition shifted.

One of her heart valves was not opening. Only 20 percent of her heart was working. She was in critical condition.

“She was at death’s door,” Chapman said.

Donor list

Doctors now considered Stephanie to be a 1A patient on the donor list. It put her at the top of the list.

Patients like Stephanie who are at the top of the list can receive word of a possible donor in as less as an hour. In the world of heart transplants, much has improved over the years.

But the bottom line is that there’s no guarantee. That uncertainty was in the back of Christina’s mind. But she was also overcome by something less definable.

“It’s not something I can say I knew. It’s something I felt. I knew Christmas was coming. I kept thinking, ‘Maybe she’ll get a new heart? That was always there, in the back of my mind, almost as if I knew it would happen,” she said.

Stephanie went through surgery early Christmas morning. The doctor told Christina someone would update her on her daughter’s condition. But Christina waited and waited. No one came. About five hours after the surgery, getting restless, she grabbed a nurse.

“That’s when I found out. The surgery had been successful and Stephanie was OK,” she said. “The doctor fell asleep after the operation. He thought someone else would update me.”

Go Fund Me

Stephanie has a long recovery ahead of her. Friends of the Chapman family put up a Go Fund Me account to help with medical bills and expenses.

Stephanie attended Hancock High School from 2011 to 2015. Her favorite teacher, Freda Gruys, has been following developments since Stephanie first got sick. That ,too, has involved plenty of hospital visits.

I looked at it and when I count all the days Stephanie was in the hospital over a four month period, it comes out to 40 days and 40 nights...exactly. I don’t think that’s an accident.

Christina Chapman

During one visit, Gruys brought Stephanie her JROTC jacket. It’s her pride and joy.

“I’ve always believed in miracles. To know where’s she’s come from and to see where she is now, that is the true definition of a Christmas miracle,” she said.

Christina looks back and notes the coincidence of the day Stephanie got her heart, and also the number of days she was in hospitals.

“I looked at it and when I count all the days Stephanie was in the hospital over a four-month period, it comes out to 40 days and 40 nights ... exactly,” she said. “I don’t think that’s an accident.”

It’s true that for Stephanie Chapman to live, another had to die. While one family mourns, another rejoices. Christina asks for friends and family to continue praying for her. She has another request.

“You have mixed feelings,” Christina said. “I’m incredibly happy and joyful Stephanie got a heart, and that she was reborn on Christmas Day, the same day Jesus was born. But I’m also sad and feel great sympathy for the donor’s family. They’ll always remember Christmas in a negative way. I’ll remember that and pray for them, too.”

Justin Vicory: 228-896-2326, @justinvicory

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