Two years later, family celebrates heart transplant that saved Grand Ledge mom
The Thanksgiving holiday will always hold a special place for Rachel Kuntzsch and her family. It was two years ago that a heart transplant saved Rachel’s life.
“I’m just really grateful,” said the 46-year-old Grand Ledge resident.
Always active and healthy, Kuntzsch’s life took a shocking turn within the course of one week two years ago. She said she thought she was merely coming down with a cold in November of 2018, when she felt a bit tired and noticed she was short of breath as she was cheering her son at a school play. Her chest felt heavy. Suspecting bronchitis, she went to have it checked out – and found herself in an ambulance being rushed to a hospital. Doctors initially thought she had had a heart attack.
Her condition deteriorated over the weekend and she transferred to Michigan Medicine. Things happened fast, then. On Monday, she had a heart biopsy. On Tuesday, she learned the results: she was in congestive heart failure caused by severe giant cell myocarditis, a rare idiopathic heart condition. She needed a new heart.
“By the end of the week, I was deathly ill. My other organs were failing – I was in really bad shape,” Kuntzsch said. “At this point, I was at death’s door. In eight days, I went from thinking I was getting bronchitis to needing a new heart. My family was bracing for the worst.”
Wednesday, she was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, an external heart-lung bypass. It kept her alive, the ECMO is only a very temporary solution. Rachel said she knows it was miraculous that after only a day on the transplant waiting list, a matched heart was found.
“It was a complete celebration,” she said. “We made the best phone calls of our lives – we were calling friends and family while they were sitting down for their Thanksgiving dinner. Everybody was celebrating.”
She faced a months-long recovery, but said her faith helped her through it, the way it had when doctors first told her how serious her condition was.
“I had a lot of faith,” Kuntzsch said. “On that Tuesday, when the doctor told me I needed a transplant, I prayed and I just felt at peace. I just felt like it was all going to be okay.
“Nobody else did,” she added with a chuckle, “but I did. I just felt it.”
Now, she’s back at work at her consulting business, Public Sector Consultants, and as active as ever. She enjoys snorkeling, kayaking, biking, hiking and lifting weights.
“There’s nothing that I want to do that I don’t do. I lead an active life,” she said. “I never forget that it happened, but I don’t live life thinking about it all the time.”
She has also been active in encouraging others to sign up on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry, talking to business groups and at medical conferences about the need for additional donors.
“As difficult as this experience has been, it has changed me for the better and I wouldn’t want to undo it,” she said. “I see the purpose in my pain. I know that countless others are not as fortunate as I am and pass away before a match can be found. This inspires me to want to help grow the organ donor registry through outreach and education so that no one has to die waiting for the gift of life.”