Unbreakable: Christina’s Journey
During a family vacation in 2003, Christina Miller noticed an unusual shortness of breath and fatigue as she traveled Europe. Christina, 17 years old at the time, lived an active lifestyle that included a regimented dance schedule, work and school. Never having broken a bone in her life or dealt with medical problems, Christina’s rapid onset of discomfort alerted her family to seek medical attention once arriving home to the United States.
In the summer of 2003, Christina was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease that weakens the heart muscle, and heart failure in her hometown of Orlando, Florida and was transported to the UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital to be placed on a heart transplant waiting list. When she arrived to UF Health, she was introduced to F. Jay Fricker, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist at the UF Health Congenital Heart Center, and part of the UF Health Pediatric Heart and Lung Transplant Program.
Upon arrival to the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit, Christina was confined to her bed, too weak to walk. Her ejection fraction level, a number that compares the amount of blood in the heart to the amount of blood pumped out, was functioning at 5-7 percent. According to the American Heart Association, a normal ejection fraction level is 50-70 percent.
In August, Christina and her family received news that a heart was ready for transplantation. Unfortunately, physicians recognized a defect with the heart soon after organ procurement and the transplant was called off.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Christina said. “I may not be here today had I received the defective heart.”
As Christina awaited a new heart, she remained determined to walk across the stage at her high school graduation. Her teachers helped her complete her senior year by teaching coursework at her bedside.
Shortly after her canceled transplant, Christina received news that another heart was procured that would be a healthy match.
After her successful transplant, Christina spent weeks strengthening her new heart through cardiac rehabilitation, which included strength exercises, light cardio workouts and monitoring her heart rate.
“I knew that I had a long journey ahead, and I had to be patient with my body,” Christina said. “I had to grow accustomed to a new norm.”
In the winter of 2004, Christina faced another hurdle known as post-transplant lymphoproliferative disease, or PTLD. PTLD, a form of aggressive lymphoma, is sometimes found in transplant patients whose bodies rely on immunosuppressant drugs. Christina received treatment from pediatric oncologists at the UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital to put her PTLD into remission.
Through transplant and treatment for PTLD, Christina carried on with her studies and made it to her high school graduation. Following graduation, Christina attended Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL while working at the UF Health Shands Hospital. It was in Gainesville where she also met her husband, Jeff.
At her wedding, Christina’s first dance was with Fricker to the tune of “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack.
Every three months, Christina continues to receive check-ups by Fricker for bloodwork, echocardiograms and EKGs, as needed.
“She has this determination that is unbelievable,” Fricker said.
Thirteen years after her heart transplant, Christina and her husband live an active lifestyle, with daily trips to the gym and involvement in outdoor sports, including wakeboarding and snowboarding. In April of 2016, she completed the St. Anthony’s Sprint Triathlon in St. Petersburg, Florida. After three to four months of training, Christina set a personal goal to finish the triathlon in less than 2 hours. As a result, she completed in 1 hour and 41 minutes, and came in 416th out of 4,000 participants.