Former Ridgway graduate now involved in heart transplants in Texas

Amy Allison, formerly Amy Steis, now resides in Spring, Texas (north of Houston), and currently works at St. Luke’s Cooley Transplant Center in Houston. A 1989 Ridgway Area High School graduate, Allison went on to attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1993 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Allison chose IUP because it has a reputable nursing program. “It was a really ideal place to go to school,” she said. “IUP was far enough away to learn independence as a young adult, but close enough to come back home to see everyone.”Upon earning her bachelor’s degree, Allison moved to Richmond, Va. Allison chose to move there because at the time, nursing jobs were hard to come by. “I started applying up and down the east coast,” Allison said. “An opportunity presented itself at the Medical College of Virginia [MCV] so I packed up and moved.” Allison said she was nervous moving away from all she had known. “A small-town girl in a big city all alone, starting a new career… I was nervous but it all worked out just fine.” Allison married her college sweetheart a few months after she moved away and one year later they had a daughter, Emily.MCV is where she started working with post heart transplant and ventricular assist device patients. “They had a reputable program, but I wanted more experience with the patient population,” Allison said. “In addition, we missed our family and small-town Pennsylvania charm so we packed up and moved to North Huntingdon.”In North Huntingdon, Allison started work at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh. Here she worked in the cardiothoracic surgery ICU [Intensive Care Unit] with post heart and lung transplant patients and those with ventricular assist devices who were awaiting transplant. “I gained invaluable experience during the years that I was there,” said Allison. While living there, Allison had two sons: Joshua and Jacob.Allison says while she was at UPMC, she learned about the Texas Heart Institute and how it was a cutting edge transplant and assist device program under the direction of a top heart transplant surgeon, Dr. Bud Frazier. “I wanted to be a part of such a historic and highly regarded program,” Allison said. “This was the hospital where they did the first heart transplant in 1968 and where they first implanted an artificial heart.” After some consideration, Allison and her family decided to make the move.She currently works at St. Luke’s Cooley Transplant Center home of the Texas Heart Institute as a heart transplant coordinator. “This position has allowed me to incorporate all my prior years of nursing into one specific area of expertise,” said Allison. “It’s a very challenging position and can be stressful at times. This is especially true when I’m coordinating a transplant.”  Timing is the key in regards to coordinating a heart transplant. “A heart can only be out of the body for a maximum of six hours and should really be less than four hours,” Allison said. “My main role during this process is to be a liaison, directing the care and communication between the coordinator of the donor heart and my patient who’s receiving the heart.”Chaos is inevitable when it comes to assuring the heart’s timely arrival, aligning surgery, travel times, and so forth. “Making sure the recipient is in the operating room as the new heart arrives to the hospital can be chaotic at times due to all of the outside factors involved such as how far away the donor is, the weather, flight times, travel time for the recipient to get to the hospital and coordination of the surgical teams on both sides of the transplant,” Allison said. “This often takes place in the early hours of the morning after working all day. It can be very emotionally challenging as well.”Allison says her job is challenging knowing what is all involved in the transferring and receiving of organs. “Though I have no direct contact with the donor or donor family, knowing that a family has lost a loved one to make this process possible is heart wrenching, but so is seeing the failing health of one of my patients who is waiting for the perfectly matched heart,” Allison said. “This is especially difficult during a time where there are many more people waiting for a transplant than available organs.”Allison says she is an advocate for organ donations because she has seen so many ill patients go on to live vibrant fulfilling lives for many years after transplant. “The average life expectancy after a heart transplant is about 10 years, but I have had the privilege of participating in the care of many patients who are 15 to 20-plus years post-transplant,” said Allison. “They’ve gone on to see their children grow up, get married and have children of their own.” For Allison, seeing the milestones of the long term post-transplant patients is the most rewarding part of her career.Looking back, living in Elk County helped shape what Allison has become because of little worries and a small-town community. “The small close-knit community of Ridgway was always a high point as I was growing up,” said Allison. “Not having to worry as we ran to the west end park to play or ride our bikes to the community pool is a luxury that I don’t have with my children. The safety and security of knowing all your neighbors and that someone would be looking out for the kids was reassuring.”Now living in a suburb of Houston her children are exposed to a larger area with less freedom. “I wish that my children could experience that carefree environment,” she said. “When I think back, we graduated with a little over a 100 students as compared to the nearly 700 students in my daughter’s class alone. It’s hard for me to comprehend. She will graduate with students that she’s gone to school with for four years and most of whom she’s never met before; whereas in Ridgway we all knew each other and practically the entire school.”If she had to point out one specific outcome of having grown up in Ridgway, Allison says it would be the outpouring of support she received during her recent successful battle with breast cancer. “The cards, letters and Facebook posts really helped boost my spirits during my chemo treatments and recovery after surgery,” Allison said. “Everyone was so encouraging and reconnecting with people I hadn’t seen since high school brightened an otherwise horrible experience.”Allison says it was truly a blessing to know she was supported from afar which really meant a lot. “We grow up and some of us move away, but we always have a common hometown tie that can easily bring us together no matter how many years have passed or how far away we go,” she said. “There are not too many communities in the country that can say that.”Those that remain in Elk County are her mother, Ruth Steis, and brother,Tom Steis, with his wife Becky and son Wade, who all reside in Ridgway.Allison says she is intending a visit home and hopes her family can see the snow. “My kids really enjoyed seeing the snow when we were home in November 2007,” said Allison. “The only snow they see here is when they bring in trucks of it for them to play in at school functions.”