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MEDFORD, Ore. — More than a year into a healthcare rollercoaster that could easily have taken her life, 31-year-old Vanessa Trotter is back in Medford with her partner and brings with her a new outlook — one suffused with gratitude and hope.
Trotter is no stranger to adversity. She grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and became a ward of the state at age 11 as her mother struggled with substance abuse and her father served time in prison. She and three of her young siblings went through several foster homes and a group children's home before settling with a foster family three hours away in a rural town.
After graduating from high school, Trotter enrolled in community college — working as a student ambassador at the school, becoming a certified nursing assistant, and cleaning homes.
“I had it pretty good,” Trotter explained. “My foster parents cared about me and they stayed in touch after I left home. I felt like I could do this. College was a good time. I met a lot of people – including my partner, Michael [Maxson].”
Once Trotter earned her Associate's degree in science, in 2014 she and Maxson joined several members of his family in moving across the country to Medford. Trotter got a job with a health insurance company and worked her way up to an administrative position.
Things took a turn in the summer of 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic reached full-swing. Trotter found herself becoming easily winded, but a Covid-19 test she took came back negative. She was prescribed an inhaler by her primary care doctor, who suspected she had asthma. But Trotter's condition continued to worsen until she was coughing up blood.
In September of that year, Trotter went to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center for treatment. A second Covid test came back negative. Then, at the age of 30, she was diagnosed with heart failure. Imaging showed multiple blood clots in her heart and lungs. A cardiologist broke the news that her only option was to get a heart transplant.
“I was just devastated,” Trotter said of her diagnosis. “It didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know what to do. I thought ‘I’m going to die.’ I was so scared.”
All things considered, Trotter's timing was fortunate. The heart transplant program at Oregon Health & Science University abruptly shut down in 2018 after the loss of its team of cardiologists. But by 2020 the program had been resurrected, performing its first successful heart transplant at the end of March.
In November, Trotter was airlifted to OHSU where they began the evaluation process and did their best to treat her in the interim. Still, she found herself faced with a grim reality, having to write a will and advanced directive while receiving treatment in intensive care.
Neither Trotter nor Maxson could work as she received care in Portland, and it was only with the help of friends and family that they were able to pay the bills and maintain her insurance in order to cover her care and a potential transplant.
By late 2020 and early 2021, Trotter was back and forth between Portland and Medford. Finally, in May of 2021, she got some good news. When the call came from OHSU that there was a heart waiting for her, Trotter and Maxson drove through the night from Medford to Portland. The five-hour surgery itself was a success, and she woke up May 17 immediately feeling changed.
“I could tell my heart was different,” recalled Trotter. “It felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest. I swear I could hear it out of my eyes. Ba-boom! Ba-boom! I wondered why it was so loud. The doctors told me I wasn’t used to having a working heart. To fall asleep, I ended up having to count as a distraction.”
Trotter wasn't out of the woods yet. She had complications that impacted her kidneys, forcing her to go on dialysis for a time. She also had to be hospitalized again for a time due to a bacterial infection likely worsened by the immune-suppressing drugs used to keep her body from rejecting the new heart.
Finally, in mid-August, Trotter and Maxson were able to return home to Medford. She hasn't been able to return to work yet, even though she'd like nothing more. In the meantime, she's thinking about doing some volunteering or continuing her education.
“My situation is helping me figure out I can do more in life, and that I don’t have to stay in a certain box,” Trotter said.
Growing up in foster care, Trotter learned to be independent and self-reliant. But she says that her journey over the past year has changed the way she looks at things, teaching her that she can lean on other people.
“We can all accept help,” she said. “The world is not always out to get you. There are people who want to help you succeed.”
Most of all, Trotter is grateful — and hopeful. She's seen multiple times now that it's possible to come back from the brink of disaster.
“I just want people to know that there is hope, and to not accept your situation as fate,“ she said.