In mid-July, Kadie Neuharth went to Phoenix, Arizona to increase her chances of getting a new heart.
Earlier this week, she got that chance.
Neuharth, now 31, started showing signs of restrictive idiopathic cardiomyopathy, a rare disease affecting the muscles of the heart, when she was 27. At about 8 p.m. Tuesday, Neuharth got word that a match had been found. She had her six-hour surgery Wednesday afternoon and spent the night in the intensive care unit.
"It was life-changing, and I'm sure for her the most exciting news she could've ever heard," said Neuharth's mother, Karmen McCain. "The waiting is so hard, the waiting and the unknown. They finally say, 'We have a match, we have a heart' - the adrenaline kicks in and you're just pumped and happy and ready to go. That part's in the rearview mirror."
The decision to go to Phoenix was a strategic one. The United States is divided into 11 transplantation districts. When an organ becomes available, it goes to someone on the transplant list in that region, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In order for a heart to be a match with someone on the transplant list, blood type and antibodies must be the same in the donor and the recipient, and the heart must be proportional in size to the person receiving it. People on the list are matched with hearts that meet those criteria, with the sickest people being prioritized first.
Neuharth, a Mitchell native who began receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, was originally only on the transplant list for Region 7, which includes most of the upper Midwest.
Neuharth has become well known in Rochester and in Minnesota's Twin Cities, as she was selected to be the year's Go Red for Women campaign spokeswoman for the American Heart Association in the area. But she decided to go to Phoenix last month so she could also get on the transplant list in Region 5, which includes more populous states such as California, Arizona and Nevada.
"If I would've stayed up in our region, it would've probably been a year," Neuharth said. "I was listed in both places, knowing that I would probably not get a heart in Rochester."
Prior to her surgery, Neuharth would've been exhausted after walking up a few flights of stairs. Just 24 hours after her heart transplant, she was up and walking around her bed. On Friday, she walked around an entire floor of the hospital.
"It's been absolutely amazing. That's the only word for it," McCain said. "Physically, she will probably have no restrictions down the road. Once everything is good to go, you can literally train to run a marathon, if that's what you choose to do."
For now, Neuharth will be staying in a condo a few minutes from the hospital, but once she gets approval from her doctors, she plans to head back to the Rochester area, where she'll do most of her follow-up appointments. To keep her immune system from attacking her new heart, she'll have to take an anti-rejection drug for the rest of her life, but there aren't many activities that will be off-limits for Neuharth after she recovers from her surgery.
"The only thing I really can't do is eat sushi," she said.
Neuharth will have to spend a few more days in the hospital in Phoenix, but after that, her hospital visits will gradually become less frequent. At first, she'll have to get almost daily blood work done and have frequent testing on her heart to make sure it's not being rejected, but if everything is still going well a year from now, she may only have to see a doctor once every few months.