This ER doctor and heart transplant survivor wants you to wear a mask

Dr. Alin Gragossian gets it. Wearing a mask, social distancing, frequently washing your hands, using a sanitizing gel or wipe on everything you touch — all that gets old, fast.

“I understand it’s annoying,” Gragossian said. “But at the same time, you don’t know what it’s like to be in the position where you’re dying.

“I’ve been in that position, so I tell people: ‘If you knew what it felt like, then you wouldn’t be complaining right now.'”

Protecting her body from infectious disease became a habit for Gragossian long before Covid-19 invaded our world. Now, it’s something she does every day without thinking. And she has a message for the rest of us: We can make it a habit, too.

“People for some reason think that their freedom is taken away when they have to wear a mask or abide by these health recommendations,” she said. “I think that those people are being selfish in my opinion. I want to show people that it’s doable. Here I am, I’ve done it for a year and a half and it’s doable. That’s what I want to tell them.”

Gragossian is a heart transplant survivor, thankful for the precious gift of a second chance at life.

A ‘miracle’

“On December 21, 2018, I almost died.”

So begins the blog Gragossian writes to document her journey with heart disease.

In the fall of 2018, she was a 30-year-old emergency medicine resident in Philadelphia, young, healthy, accustomed to exercising, playing and working hard.

The first hints of her illness seemed benign — it started with a cold, then a dry cough that wouldn’t go away. Before long Gragossian was having more and more difficultly breathing — all symptoms eerily similar to today’s Covid-19.

This went on for two months, while “like a good doctor, I did nothing about it,” Alin said with a wry smile.

Then, within just a couple of days Gragossian’s symptoms suddenly worsened. She finally went to the hospital for tests, where she went into cardiac arrest.

Doctors were able to stabilize and intubate her before placing her into a medically induced coma.

The problem: an undetected heart defect she’d had since birth, triggered by a virus she contracted that fall. Without a new heart, she wouldn’t survive.

Her heart was kept beating — “barely” she said — with medications. Her blood pressure plummeted and she became anemic. She had only weeks to live.

“During those early weeks, I came close to death a few times,” Gragossian wrote in an article for her local paper. “I barely had enough strength to write out a living will and advanced directives. Try doing that at the prime of your young life, while tethered by tubes and wires to an ICU bed.”

Her dire condition pushed her to the top of the donor lists, yet the grim reality is many people still die waiting for a transplant. But Gragossian was lucky, very lucky. The sequence of events, she said, was nothing short of a miracle.

“I got the heart within 11 days,” she remembered with awe. “Looking back, I’m like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I got through.’ A lot of things could have gone wrong and I can’t believe I’m here.”

‘Look what happened to me’

Today, Gragossian is 32, working as an emergency room doctor at a New York City hospital and completing her training in intensive care medicine. She spends her spare time volunteering for the Gift of Life Donor Program, encouraging people to sign up to be organ donors, hoping her story will inspire more to do so.

She was one of the lucky 39,718 people who received transplanted organs in the United States in 2019, which included more than 3,500 heart transplants, according to the American Heart Association. Some 112,000 people were on the national transplant waiting list as of March 2020, and 20 people die each day waiting for a transplant.

“Because of getting that heart, here I am just living my life again,” Gragossian said. “And I’m doing literally everything that I was doing just before my heart stopped. And that’s all thanks to my organ donor and her family.

“There’s nothing in the world that can come close to the power of organ donation,” she added. “Yet most people don’t realize how many people are in need of transplants. People die every day waiting on the list for a transplant.”

Gragossian now works in a former hotbed of Covid-19 — New York City– one of the first epicenters of the pandemic, with over 22,000 deaths. As the city struggles to return to normal, Gragossian watches the number of cases skyrocketing in states around the country and worries.

“I think that those people just need to be more educated on what wearing a mask and taking certain precautions can actually do for the general public, right? This is a public health issue. This isn’t just a ‘me’ issue. This isn’t just a one person issue.”

Yet it’s very personal, both to Gragossian and all other transplant organ recipients. In order to keep their bodies from rejecting the transplanted organ, they must be on drugs to suppress their immune system for the rest of their lives.

That places Gragossian and all of the Americans living with transplants at the highest risk of catching Covid-19 — or any other infectious bacteria or virus.

To cope with those dangers, all organ transplant recipients are trained on how to socially distance, avoid crowds, wear masks, wash hands and do all they can to keep the world’s germs at bay. Much of it is what we hear today.

“If my family members are sick, I don’t come into contact with them. I wear a mask in public, and try not to go to really crowded places,” she said.

Hand sanitizer and wipes are Gragossian’s best friends — not only as a doctor but in her everyday life.

“You just walk around with a wipe in your hand,” she said, wiping down seats in taxis and rails on public transport, even the booth and table at a restaurant.

“Sometimes you get the funny looks, but I’m totally open about everything,” Gragossian said. “I’ll say to them, ‘Do you have a problem with this? Do you want to know why I’m doing this? Because I’ll explain it. I’m very talkative. I’ll tell you all about my transplant.”

In the midst of Covid-19, Gragossian is very aware of the fragility of life, and tries to tell her young friends and coworkers to stop believing they are invincible.

It’s a message she would like to send to all of the young people who aren’t concerned about catching Covid-19.

“I was a young, healthy person without medical problems, and I really didn’t take my symptoms seriously, and look what happened to me,” Gragossian said.

“So when Covid started happening, and people were like, ‘I’m young, I’m fine,’ I would say, ‘No, that’s what I thought and I ended up with a heart transplant.’ So I use my story to remind people to be careful.”

How to donate

Anyone age 18 and older can register to be an organ, eye, and tissue donor. The US Health Resources and Services Administration lists many of the top donor and transplant organizations, including organ, tissue and blood donation options.

You can choose the organs you wish to donate — kidneys, pancreas, liver, lungs, heart and intestines per donor — and you can change your status at any time.

Tissue donation is also possible, such as skin for burn patients, bone and heart valves to repair defects, and corneas to provide sight to two recipients.

One of the easiest ways is to register when you get a new driver’s license. Your license will display your choice, and the information will be forwarded to your state’s registry.

And forget these myths, since there’s no truth in them: If I’m an organ or tissue donor, they won’t work as hard to save my life (FALSE); my family will be billed for the harvesting of my organs (NO); and a closed casket funeral after donation is the only option (ABSOLUTELY NOT).

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