By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Pam Morris believes in God. For a quarter of a century, Morris worked the microphone at WVON giving hope to thousands of listeners as they struggled to overcome tough problems in their lives. Now, she really has something to talk about.
One year ago, Morris had a problem of her own; one that was so big that God became her greatest listener. Four days before going on the air, doctors told Morris that her heart was bad and that without a new one, she would die. With thousands of patients waiting for years for a heart, acquiring a heart seemed like an impossible goal for Morris. What started out as a mere cold, turned into a life-threatening situation that was much bigger than Morris’ faith.
She would face the biggest fight of her life.
But divine intervention led Morris on a spiritual journey where she blew past seemingly insurmountable obstacles to receive a successful heart transplant in a relatively short period of time. While many colleagues and friends scratch their heads in disbelief, Morris and many others are calling her victory a miracle from God.
At a time when the healthcare industry is being criticized for lacking compassion for patients, Morris’ life fell into the hands of some of the most compassionate, qualified and distinguished doctors and nurses who went to great lengths to see that she was taken care of every step of the way.
Hers is the story of how timing and sheer faith were on the side of the popular radio personality, who was challenged by a situation that could have left her with little hope and no motivation to fight to live.
On February 23, 2016 her son’s 45th birthday, Morris, 67, was driving to visit her sick mother in West Virginia when she started coughing. She developed flu-like symptoms and they were forced to stop at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital in Elmhurst, IL, about 19 miles northwest of Chicago.
The doctors suspected a heart-related issue. Through their relationship with cardiologists at the University of Chicago Medicine, she was transferred there where she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Her heart was pumping weaker than normal with lower blood levels flowing to the brain and other vital organs.
Congestive heart failure affects nearly six million Americans. Roughly, 670,000 people are diagnosed with heart failure each year. It is the leading cause of hospitalization in people older than age 65. If left untreated, congestive heart failure can lead to heart attacks and death.
Morris said the diagnosis briefly left her overwhelmed. She didn’t have high blood pressure and wasn’t a smoker or drug user. All her life, Morris had maintained a healthy lifestyle.
“I told them to leave the room because I felt sick,” she said. They said, ‘We need to keep you in the hospital because you’re past a pacemaker.’ But I said, ‘I’m not staying here.’”
The doctors remained concerned about Morris. She was given medication for the next several months, but on June 20, 2016, Morris was admitted to the University of Chicago Hospital, where she spent two nights. Tests revealed that her weak heart had worsened.
After she was released, Morris was given a Zoll Life Vest—an undergarment that’s actually a heart defibrillator. It is activated when the heart stops, sending shocks to the organ to restore normal heart rhythm. They also gave her more drugs for her heart condition.
Still experiencing dizziness and feeling weak, on July 28, 2016, she was admitted to the University of Chicago Hospital. She was placed on the waiting list for a new heart, but because her condition was severe and her situation urgent, Morris was moved to the top of the donor list as an A-list patient.
In 2016, there were 3,191 heart transplants in the U.S. according to organdonor.gov. The American Heart Association says nearly 4,000 people in the U.S. are on the waitlist for a new heart and an average of 18 people die each day waiting for transplants, due to a national shortage of donated organs. For social and economic reasons, Blacks and minorities have historically been known to place at the bottom of the list.
While reports say the average heart patient wait is at least six months for a donor, Morris received a matching heart in 27 days. (Her first prospective heart came in seven days after she was placed on the waitlist, but the heart wasn’t the right match).
Morris’ cardiologist, Dr. Valluvan Jeevanandam said the University of Chicago Medicine is highly-skilled in identifying “good hearts” that are ready for transplant. He said the hospital has a lower wait-time than other medical institutions because of its years of experience.
“In Morris’ case, the key was awareness of the problem and getting the appropriate referral to the right medical help.”
But Morris didn’t know the doctors at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital who connected her to the top cardiologists at the University of Chicago Medicine. From start to finish, doctors at both institutions took an interest in getting Morris a new heart.
“I’m blessed,” said Morris during a two-hour interview in her home in Bronzeville. “I’m a living miracle.”
During the time she waited for the new heart, Morris was attached to the NuPulse CV pump, a device that provides long-term support for those with advanced heart failure.It helped Morris’ failing blood circulation as she waited for a heart transplant. The groundbreaking device debuted in 2016 and is gaining media attention for its powerful ability to keep blood circulating among those waiting for a heart transplant.
Through a two-inch incision, the pump was inserted into Morris’s left subclavian artery, just below the collarbone. For 27 days, the pump helped Morris breathe easily and kept her healthy before she got to the operating table. She was the fourth patient and first woman in the world to use the device, which was designed by Jeevanandam, her cardiologist. He is a professor and the chief of cardiac surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine.
On August 25, 2016—one day after a new heart arrived from an anonymous donor—
Jeevanandam led a team of doctors who, for five and half hours, carefully implanted the organ in Morris’ chest. Morris’s husband, the Rev. Frank Walton of Third Baptist Church in Beverly, stayed outside the operating room the entire time. Her son, John Morris was also there.
“In my mind, the only thing I could think of was Pam,” Walton said. “I thought about the family who consented to give her a heart. There was a certain level of excitement. I was pretty much past the fear.”
The operation was a success. Morris was released from the University of Chicago Hospital on Sept. 22. She had been in the hospital for 57 days.
The body has been known to attack any new organ in its system. To ensure that her body accepted her new heart, Morris said she was required to take 38 pills a day. Presently, she only takes nine daily.
While his wife was recovering in the hospital, Walton—Morris’ husband of two years—had scrubbed, disinfected and cleaned their Bronzeville condominium so his wife wouldn’t develop any infections. Friends and colleagues were kept away for periods of time so that Morris could heal without contracting any germs or illnesses. Morris recovered gradually as more of her friends re-entered her life with increased visits.
Today, Pam Morris is healthy, happy and a busy woman once again.
She walks several times a week and has resumed attending her church, the Apostolic Faith Church in Bronzeville. She recently returned from Washington, D.C. after attending the Congressional Black Caucus annual convention.
On Sept. 24, she returned to the airwaves as a WVON radio personality where she has hosted her Sunday gospel show for 25 years. Although Morris hasn’t met the family who donated her heart, Morris said she was told that she would meet them at the Operation Rainbow PUSH headquarters when the time is right.
“I have to tell them ‘thank you’ because they saved my life,” she said.