Written by Ashley Smedema and photography by Travis Pohl of E&M Photography
Dawn Revels is a 43-year-old woman from Brandon, Wisconsin. She is married to husband Cory, has an 18-year-old son named Bailey, a 21-year-old daughter named Paige, and a two-year-old granddaughter named Brookelyn. If you were to look at Dawn now, you would have no idea about the harrowing and tumultuous journey on which life has taken her.
When her son Bailey was born in 2000, it was discovered that Dawn had a heart murmur. It didn’t seem serious, so life went on normally for six years. However, in 2006, Dawn’s health took a dip, which led to a doctor visit. They found more issues than initially thought, discovering that her heart was extremely weak and enlarged with two leaky valves. She was given medication, which was sufficient until 2015. During the first half of the year, Dawn was hospitalized at least 6 times for congestive heart failure, which eventually led to the implantation of a pacemaker/defibrillator and an open heart surgery. She was still left with shortness of breath, which put her in and out of the hospital often. While all this was going on, she was also raising her then 19-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son and trying to keep up at her full-time job.
Dawn doesn’t remember much of what came next in her story, but she has a network of loved ones that have provided her with details. While her first open heart surgery took place at the Appleton Medical Center, Dawn was eventually transferred to Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee. When she was admitted to Froedtert, a series of tests determined that her organs were all shutting down due to the performance of her heart. This led to her second open heart surgery in which they installed an LVAD (left ventricular assist device) to do the work of pumping her blood through her heart.
Living with the LVAD was extremely challenging. She had a device attached to her at all times via a foot-long cord coming out of her left side, which was connected to batteries and a controller. She also needed to wear a pack around her neck, which weighed over 5 pounds. When she would leave the house, she needed to bring another set of batteries, which lasted 6-8 hours each, and a back-up controller, which would send an alert if anything was going wrong within her body. While she had the device, her body had no pulse or blood pressure. To avoid issues, Dawn was not allowed to unload the dryer, vacuum, or even shower – sponge baths only.
The LVAD surgery was hard on her body, and she suffered serious bleeding, coding 3-4 times after the surgery. She went back and forth from the ICU to the floor approximately 12 times, and the rehab process was a long one. She was constantly shifted back and forth from rehab to the ICU for bleeding issues, and her stay in the hospital lasted a total of four months. She was put on dialysis and needed to re-learn to walk and talk, and regain muscle loss. She was also dealing with a feeding tube and struggling to pass a swallow test, which could prove that she would be able to eat or drink on her own. This was a frustrating process, but she finally passed the day before she was released from the hospital.
From there, she underwent extensive physical and occupational therapy as she re-developed the strength to hold herself up, stand, walk, and even sit. She reached a huge milestone when she was able to walk 180 feet, something most people take for granted every day. She would try to strengthen both body and mind as she sat up in bed and worked on Sudoku puzzles, conditioning herself to sit upright and hold a pencil.
Throughout her time at the hospital and once she returned home, Dawn struggled with depression and anxiety. Undergoing tests, switching floors, facing setbacks, or even when her family would leave were events that caused immense anxiety. Once home, she was afraid to be left alone, plagued by the “what ifs” and worrying about issues that may arise. She found comfort in a devotional book that she would read daily in the hospital and after discharge, relating with the messages and feeling a sense of hope. She constantly repeated Philippians 4:13, telling herself, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
During this same time, Dawn’s daughter gave birth to a little girl named Brookelyn Marie. They lived with Dawn and Cory for a year and a half, which gave Dawn a great sense of purpose in the morning. “Getting out of bed during recovery couldn’t have been easier when I knew that precious bundle was there to love!” Dawn recalls. As Brookelyn got older, she would come into Dawn’s room in the morning and tell her it was time to wake up! Dawn says, “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Eventually, Dawn’s health condition began to decrease again. She was spending more time in the hospital, and upon the majority of her heart giving out, she was bumped to the top of the heart transplant recipient list for thirty days. Being on this list was difficult for Dawn and her family, because they struggled with praying for a heart, knowing it meant someone else would be losing their loved one for that to happen. They found solace in knowing that God was in control of the situation, and He would guide the future.
The thirty days passed without a heart, which was disappointing to say the least. Thankfully, the doctors were able to apply for an extension, which was granted. Six days later, she finally got the call for a heart, which she received while she was four hours from the hospital, at her son’s baseball game. They had talked to the coach ahead of time so he understood their arrangement, and asked him to pull Bailey off the field. He first thought he was being called in to replace the pitcher, but when he saw his mom bawling behind the fence, he grabbed all his gear and ran to give her a huge hug before heading to the car.
As she finally headed into surgery, Dawn felt completely calm. She wasn’t worried about the outcome of the surgery, and knew it was completely in God’s hands. The surgery was successful, and her physical recovery went very well while she was in the hospital. A few minor complications arose along the way, but it was quite smooth for the most part. The most difficult aspect was the mental part, because Dawn was grieving for a family she had never met and the life they had lost. She dealt with guilt, asking God why she was so blessed to receive a heart while someone else had given it.
The woman that had donated her heart was Tracy Smits, who had suffered a brain aneurysm. Her husband Todd Smits had passed away the year before, and their son Dustin was still mourning the loss of both. His girlfriend, Whitney, was attempting to help bring him healing when she searched for puppies for sale on Facebook. She came across a post that seemed promising and decided to scroll through the profile of the seller, a woman she had never met named Dawn Revels. As she scrolled, she discovered Dawn had undergone a heart transplant on the same day Tracy had passed away. She sent her a message asking about her procedure and donor, and as the women messaged back and forth, they put the pieces of their stories together. They agreed to meet the next day, and Dustin was able to listen to Tracy’s heart in Dawn’s chest with a stethoscope.
“I can’t explain the feelings I felt that day, but I do know that it feels as though we have known each other forever,” Dawn explained. “I can say that all the guilt that I felt in the beginning is now gone and I feel as though my journey has come to a complete circle.”
Dustin feels grateful for the closure he received in meeting Dawn. The loss of his parents had been a difficult ordeal. Whitney reflects on the situation, saying, “There were a lot of hard days. Watching Dustin struggle trying to figure out a new sense of normal was heart-wrenching.” She experienced a rollercoaster of emotions when they finally met Dawn, unable to believe it was all really happening.
“The biggest lesson I’ve gotten from all this,” Dustin explains, “is being thankful for what God has given you. Live life every day like it could be your last. Be that helpful person to others, and treat them how you would like to be treated. My mother and father raised me to be that helping person, and now I see how much they enjoyed helping others, even when it was out of their hands. With the loss of my mom, I now know she is still helping others that are here on God’s green earth, which is a gratifying experience.”
“Life works in mysterious ways,” Whitney adds. “So many little events and tragedies led us to the point of being able to come full circle and find something good out of all the bad. Most times, you don’t understand why certain things happen, but when it comes together like this, you realize that everything happens for a reason.”
“I have never felt physically or mentally as good as I do today! If someone calls and wants to do something, I stop and do it,” Dawn says of her current situation. “Life can be so short. We all need to remember to live life to its fullest. We never know what tomorrow may bring. Hold those dear to your heart close and don’t let a day go by without telling them you love them.”
Dawn now volunteers as a mentor at Froedtert Hospital, counseling patients that may need a VAD like she did. She sees this as a great way to give back in appreciation of everything the Froedtert staff has done for her, and as a way to honor the heart she received.
If there’s one thing Dawn, Dustin, and Whitney want everyone to know, it’s the importance of organ donation. “If you or your loved ones are considering organ donation,” Dawn adds, “think about what a blessing it would be for that one person out there waiting for the organ and how you could change their life!”
To learn about organ donation and to register, visit https://www.froedtert.com/donatelife for more information.