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Graduating to a new heart: Carson-Newman senior and Johnson City resident had second heart transplant in April

May 9th, 2014 9:15 am by Nick Shepherd

Graduating to a new heart: Carson-Newman senior and Johnson City resident had second heart transplant in April

Christian Cummins, who will graduate from Carson-Newman University today, had her first heart transplant when she was just 2 weeks old. After suffering a heart attack in November at age 22, she had her second heart transplant in April.

Sharp, intense pain spread through the left side of her chest. It was a pounding pain that moved through her jaw and crept up the left side of her face.

She had come back to Johnson City to visit her grandmother for the weekend. She sometimes writes scripts for a web series based in East Tennessee and was also in town to help with the production. It was only supposed to be a weekend break from her senior year in college.

She wasn't supposed to have a heart attack at 22.

"I've never felt that pain before," Christian Cummins said. "I was worried. It was scary."

To understand why Christian was having a heart attack at 22, the hands of the clock must be reversed to when she made her first appearance in the world.

Christian was born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome or HLHS. HLHS is a birth defect that affects normal blood flow through the heart. As the baby develops during pregnancy, the left side of the heart does not form correctly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a normal baby will have the right side of the heart pump oxygen-poor blood from the heart to the lungs. The left side of the heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body.

In a baby with HLHS, the left side of the heart cannot pump oxygen-rich blood to the body properly. For the first few days, the right side of an HLHS baby's heart will pump blood to both the lungs and the body, bypassing the poorly functioning left side, but after normal heart openings close, it becomes hard for oxygen-rich blood to reach the rest of the body.

Babies might not have trouble the first few days of their life, but soon after could develop problems breathing, pounding heart, weak pulse or ashen or bluish skin color. The CDC estimates about 1 out of every 4,344 babies born in the United States each year is born with HLHS.

This is the birth defect Christian was born with. She had her first heart transplant at 2 weeks old.

From that time on, she was a normal little girl, aside from the frequent doctor's appointments. After graduating high school with no signs of trouble, she enrolled at Carson-Newman University.

She double-majored in English and communication studies. Somewhere along the way she developed a love for writing, specifically screen writing.

"I like the whole idea of being able to tell a story with nothing but words," Christian said. "I like the whole storytelling aspect, then seeing it performed."

Things were rolling along for Christian. She got connected with a web series produced in East Tennessee called "The Stranger." The series is about a mysterious murder in the small town of Evergreen, Tenn. Christian was tapped to pen episodes 109-112.

Then a fateful weekend in November changed everything.

Christian was told she would need a second heart transplant and would be placed on the list. She missed a lot of classes during this time, but she said her professors were very accommodating and let her finish her course work over winter break.

She would return to campus and wait for a heart. She noticed some things were different, like getting short of breath or running out of breath while walking to class.

Waiting is a hard game to play, especially when your life is on the line.

"I was worried some," Christian said. "But I had an overwhelming peace about it. I felt it was going to be fine."

Then on April Fool's Day, a call came. Doctors had her heart and she needed to get to Vanderbilt immediately. She couldn't believe it. The plan was for her to finish classes, graduate and do the transplant over the summer.

When she found out, she felt joy and then some panic set in. Christian arrived in Nashville on April 2 and was prepped almost as soon as she walked in the door.

Over the course of the next eight hours, surgeons installed a new heart for Christian. She has been in recovery for the last month. The week before graduation, she thought she would get to go home, but her body has been moderately rejecting the new heart. Other than that, everything has been good, she said.

Because of the time she has missed, she still has five classes to complete, which she will do over the summer.

But today, Christian will walk across the stage at Carson-Newman University and graduate — new heart and all.

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