The Write Stuff
After receiving both a new heart and kidney, Pam Fleischaker and her family chose to give back by supporting the Fleischaker Family Foundation Fellow in Heart Transplantation. (above) The Fleischaker family: Joey, Emily, David and Pam
After surviving two heart transplants and a kidney transplant, Pam Fleischaker is back to writing, swimming and engaging in life. To help others do the same, she and her family are supporting the Fleischaker Family Foundation Fellow in Heart Transplantation at Cedars-Sinai.
P olitical consultant and writer Pam Fleischaker’s life story took an unexpected turn in her early 20s, when she was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic condition that causes the walls of the heart to thicken, restricting blood flow. “My mother had it,” she says. “I have it. And we’ve discovered quite a few people in our family have it.”
Still, Fleischaker didn’t let the bleak diagnosis interrupt the plot of her life. As a political consultant and activist, she helped women seeking public office. She also worked on presidential campaigns. Covering politics, she thrived as a journalist and rose to the position of associate editor of the Oklahoma Gazette. And, as an author, she published two books. She also gave birth to two children, Joey and Emily, now 40 and 33, respectively.
In her mid-50s, however, Fleischaker’s heart began to fail.
“It became harder to breathe, harder to exercise,” she says. “I got weaker and more miserable, and I had atrial fibrillation that could no longer be controlled.”
The Oklahoma resident was accepted into a transplant program in New York, and relocated to be close to the medical facility. On Feb. 11, 2008, she received a new heart but didn’t experience stellar results.
“While I received excellent care in New York, I never felt great,” Fleischaker recalls. “I had a lot of rejection issues with that heart. After six years, it began to fail. I developed transplant-related coronary artery disease, and the tricuspid valve in my heart was leaking badly.”
To make matters worse, her kidneys were failing because they weren’t getting enough blood. At 68 years old, she was also past the age limit for a second organ transplant at many medical institutions.
Her doctor referred her to Jon Kobashigawa, MD, associate director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, director of the Advanced Heart Disease Section, director of the Heart Transplant Program and associate director of the Cedars-Sinai Comprehensive Transplant Center. He also holds the DSL/Thomas D. Gordon Chair in Heart Transplantation Medicine.
Fleischaker underwent numerous tests and evaluations and was approved for a dual transplant. “Through the grace of God and Jon Kobashigawa, they decided to take a risk on this old gal who needed two organs,” she says. “So I checked into Cedars-Sinai on January 12, 2015, and I got my second heart and my first kidney transplant on March 5. And I’ve been doing great ever since.”
She credits Kobashigawa, as well as the many doctors and clinicians at Cedars-Sinai, for helping her return to health. “Dr. Kobashigawa’s team has so much experience,” she says. “They’re a finely tuned machine. Everyone who came into my room knew everything they needed to know about me, and they had coordinated their care plan with the heart transplant team. It made me feel very confident, safe and well taken care of.”
“Medicine is a miraculous thing. But we still don’t know the answers to too many questions. So it’s satisfying to be able to help with a small part of that through our foundation.” – Pam Fleischaker
After returning with her husband, David, to their current home, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Fleischaker and her family decided to support the Fleischaker Family Foundation Fellow in Heart Transplantation. “We wanted to help other people and other families live,” she says. “It’s an extraordinary thing that they do at Cedars-Sinai, and they do it really well and with great care.”
The inaugural fellow was Diane Tran, MD, who practiced at Cedars-Sinai before returning to Hawaii to establish a transplant program in the islands. “There is no heart transplant [program] in Hawaii,” Fleischaker says. “So she is going back to start a program there. The fact that we could help her learn, and send her back to a place where she is so badly needed, was very appealing to us.”
In a parting letter at the end of her fellowship, Tran expressed how much she owed to both Kobashigawa and the Fleischaker family. “I now, confidently, feel I can proceed to this next chapter in my life, developing an advanced heart failure program in such an underserved area,” she wrote. “Imagine the rippling effect and benefits that it potentially can bring to so many people. Again, this has only been made possible because of the Fleischaker family.”
Reflecting on her experience now that she’s returned to the activities she loves, like writing, reading, art, music and swimming, Fleischaker says she’s grateful for each day. “I didn’t feel well for a lot of years, and there were times when it was hard to keep my spirits up,” she says. “Now I honestly think of every day as a glass that’s much fuller than it might have been when it felt so empty at times.
“Medicine is a miraculous thing,” she adds. “But we still don’t know the answers to too many questions. So it’s satisfying to be able to help with a small part of that through our foundation.”