2023 Real Woman: Ann Ramirez

The following is Ann's story and not an endorsement or diagnosis. Stories have been edited down for time.

A transplant was the only way to save Ann Ramirez’s life after her heart started failing at age 48. The Torrance, California, resident now encourages others to “check that box” and become organ donors.

A fit and active gymnastics instructor, Ann Ramirez regularly did forward rolls, handstands and cartwheels with her students. So she was caught off guard when she started having trouble catching her breath in 2018 at age 48. 

Maybe it was asthma, she thought, or panic attacks about caring for her father, who had cancer. 

But her symptoms continued to get worse. Easily winded, she started parking closer to store entrances. Unable to keep food down, she lost weight.

“All those things hampered everyday life as I knew it,” she said, “but I pushed through.”

Finally, she decided to see her doctor, who told her that her blood pressure was too high. An EKG revealed problems with her heart’s electrical impulses. 

An echocardiogram revealed the cause of her symptoms: She had cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure, her heart working at a fraction of what it should.

“It was very scary, but it was almost a relief,” she said. “I had an answer to what was going on.”

Ramirez’s doctor prescribed medication to help her heart work better, but her symptoms persisted. Her aunt, a cardiac nurse, monitored her condition, advising her on several occasions to call 911. She was hospitalized about a half dozen times. 

In 2020, her health worsened, her heart function declining further. The next step, her cardiologist told her, was a heart transplant.

By then, she was nearly bedridden, relying on a walker and a wheelchair to get around. 

“I was dying,” Ramirez said.

Unsure of how long she could survive, she pleaded with her doctors to expedite the evaluation process.

Ultimately, they checked her into the hospital and did just that. 

She was there when doctors diagnosed her with a brain tumor the size of a Ping-Pong ball. She would need to have surgery to remove it. She burst out laughing when they told her.

“I’m here for a heart transplant,” she said. “I can’t have a brain tumor.”

Ramirez had surgery to remove the tumor in October. Once she had sufficiently recovered, the transplant team put her on the waiting list for a new heart. A couple days later, they told her they may have identified one. By this point, hers was barely functioning. 

When she woke up after the transplant, intubated, her new heart was working as it should. Her daughters instantly noticed she had color in her face. And she felt like she could breathe again.

“It was glorious,” she said. “Let’s get this recovery underway.”

Regaining her strength while managing countless doctor’s appointments and a long list of medications wasn’t easy. So, her three daughters stepped up. 

One daughter quit her job to take care of her. The others, who already lived there, also pitched in to help with a variety of tasks from showering to paying bills. Even friends from grade school pitched in.

“With that emotional support and medical support, I was able to feel like I can do this,” Ramirez said. “No person could do it by themselves.”

While it’s been a difficult journey, Ramirez says the experience has made her life better and more joyful — the happiest she’s ever been. She lives in the moment and doesn’t take anything for granted.

Determined to do right by her heart donor, she exercises, watches her diet and shares her story, encouraging others with health problems to advocate for themselves. Her experience has inspired several of her friends and family to sign up to become organ donors — a choice she hopes others will make.

Equally important, Ramirez wants others battling health issues to know that it’s still possible to create a happy, fulfilling life. 

“Just when the caterpillar thought her life was over, she began to fly,” she said. “And I’m flying. I feel like it’s my time.”

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