Change of Heart
Local woman honored as first pediatric heart transplant patient

Laura Clark doesn't remember much about the illnesses that plagued her early youth.

The 22-year-old from Suwanee says her mind is relatively void of the multiple hospital stays and doctor's visits that eventually led to her heart transplant as a toddler.

Though the hard times of the past are a black hole in her memory, the young woman remains thankful for the doctors and surgeons who saved her life.

While Laura and her parents, Debbie and Steve, are the ones usually doing the thanking, Laura received some recognition of her own last week.

The Parkview High School graduate turned preschool parapro was honored by doctors, nurses and staff at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston Friday, recognizing her for being the hospital's first pediatric heart transplant in 1988.

The event not only honored Laura and other transplant recipients but also celebrated the Atlanta hospital's 200th heart transplant, which was performed last month.

"She doesn't know how sick she was that day, and if she didn't get that transplant she wouldn't be here today," said Dr. Robert Vincent, co-medical director of the Heart Transplant Program at CHOA, of Laura.

Vincent was one of many hospital staffers who attended the celebration, recognizing their patients and their families who attended.

Laura's parents said their daughter now lives a normal life, but they remember the rough times like it was yesterday.

Diagnosed with Prolonged QT Syndrome, a condition producing abnormal heartbeats and cardiomyopathy, an inflammation of the heart, Laura received her life-saving transplant at 3 years old.

"At that point, there's nothing else you can do," Debbie Clark said of the transplant. "That was the only option for Laura."

After waiting about a month for a compatible donor heart, Laura underwent surgery and began what her parents described as a rather quick recovery.

"In a month's time she was riding a bicycle down the hallways of Egleston," Steve Clark said. "The transformation was miraculous."

It's been nearly 20 years since her heart surgery, and Laura is thriving.

Achieving her goal of working with children, she said she rotates through a number of classes at the Shadow Brook Baptist preschool, where she spends her days with gaggles of 3 and 4 year olds.

Laura also spends her time in ballet classes - a hobby of hers since she was 4 years old.

The only reminder of Laura's illness is a permanent check-up schedule, with doctors visits about every six months and a medication cocktail she takes every day.

Laura said she credits her prolonged post-surgery health to her doctor and her parents, offering words of wisdom to those in similar medical situations.

"Have hope," Steve Clark said. "You really can have a future with this. It's not just saving life but it's having a quality life."