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Heart Failure at 31

Caleb Wood - 700 Club Producer

March 2009. Melissa Justice and her husband Ray were coming back from a cruise when Melissa began experiencing pains in her chest.

“I was 31,” began Melissa, “and I just feel like you don't have a lot of aches and pains. So I didn't really think too much of it.”

Back home, the pains persisted, and Melissa decided to see a doctor. An Ultrasound brought shocking results…

“I'll never forget he said, ‘Normal hearts beat like this,’” Melissa gestured strongly, ‘And yours is barely doing this,’ she showed weakly."

Melissa’s husband Ray added, “That initial shock of ‘something's wrong’ or ‘something's different.’ That knowledge that life is never going to be the same, or potentially never going to be the same again is jarring.”

The diagnosis: Chronic Systolic Heart Failure, a condition where one chamber in the heart can’t pump blood effectively. Melissa’s heart was functioning at only 15% capacity. They put her on medication, but her best hope of survival was a heart transplant. 

“It was like being told, ‘You planned this whole future with your husband, this beautiful family that you had in your mind and this beautiful career that you were working on so hard,’” Melissa said. “It was like having everything ripped out from underneath you.”

After 3 months of medication Melissa’s heart function had gotten worse, dropping to 7%. Needing more specialized care, she was sent to Ohio State University Hospital.

Cardiac Anesthesiologist Dr. Bill Perez noted, “That's bad heart failure and it means that you typically aren't able to do things that you used to do, your normal daily activities. It is a life altering diagnosis even though these days we keep a lot of these heart failure patients alive it's not the same life.”

“We would wake up every morning,” said Melissa, “and we would give ourselves an entire hour where we'd just let ourselves grieve that life that we were losing. After that hour was over, we would come together and we would pray and we would say, you know, ‘We're going to make the best of this day that we can.’"

Melissa had a heart pump implanted in August of that year. Along the way, Melissa started a blog to chronicle her journey and ask for prayer.

“Just tried to take it one day at a time and just tried to trust that God would be with us,” said Melissa. “I did not feel better. I remember actually thinking, ‘I cannot believe the human body can take this much pain.’ Kept thinking, ‘Maybe tomorrow I'll feel better,’ but months after the surgery I still was feeling very rough.”

“What's the future going to hold,” Ray questioned. “What's it going to look like? Will my wife still even be here in six months; will I need to plan a funeral?”

After Four months of little improvement, it seemed a transplant was still the best option. After passing the candidacy test with perfect numbers, Melissa was put at the top of the transplant list, but only for 30 days.

On January 10th, 2010, the last day of her eligibility, a suitable heart became available. Melissa was wheeled in for surgery that night.

“The best-case scenario was I was going to get this transplant and it was going to be fantastic.” Melissa said, “And I was trying to prepare for the worst at the same time, trying to do both. And I wanted to truly honor God. Whether I passed or whether I lived, I wanted to honor God in whatever I did.”

Meanwhile, Ray was praying. “Praying for strength for her. For as good of a recovery as we could expect. You know, if things did not go as planned you know, the grace to get through that, the strength to get through those outcomes.”

“Dr. Perez comes out in, two to three hours was the timeframe and we just all freeze, in the waiting room.” Ray continued, “Either something's really, really good or something's really, really bad.”

“So I woke up, I thought, ‘Well, I feel better than I thought I'd feel the first time, but I had only had like open heart was my first surgery so I expected to feel a lot worse than I felt,’” said Melissa. “So when Ray came in he said ‘Honey, you didn't get the transplant.’ And I was liked ‘Oh, man, the heart was bad?’ And Ray said, ‘No, honey, your heart is better, God healed your heart. You didn't need the transplant.’"

Moments after Melissa was put under, her anesthesiologist Dr. Perez, decided to do one final test. What he saw he couldn’t explain.

“I put the probe in,” said Dr. Perez, “and what I see is a heart that is almost, but not quite, completely normal in its squeeze. I kept looking at this heart that was banging away virtually normally, and she's not on any supportive drugs at all. The surgeon looked at that heart, saw what I saw and said, ‘I can't give her a heart that works better than this.’"

Melissa shared, “The morning of my not transplant I remember my surgeon coming in and he said ‘Melissa, we have no idea what made you sick and we have no idea what's made you better.’ And we said, ‘We do.’ We knew.”

Months later, the pump was removed.  Today, after more than a decade, Melissa’s heart is still going strong. And while it is not quite 100%, she’s still able to be the active, mother of two adopted boys and loving wife, that God has called her to be. 

“It's still tough some days,” Melissa admitted, “but it's life. I still wake up in the morning and I say, ‘Thank you God, for healing my heart.’"

Dr. Perez ended with, “Seeing Melissa today, over 10 years later, still with her own heart, living a normal life – it’s just a privilege to have been a part of it.”

“We’ve seen the Lord work, right? We know miracles happen, right,” said Ray. “We read about them in the Bible. But to see one, to see something so tangible happen was amazing.”

“I have a beautiful life,” Melissa proclaimed, “a very full life, and I have life, which is the best part.”

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