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Published on March 17, 2021

A patient in heart failure gets the support she needs to stay healthy — and in her home

Patient Care Fund chart

‘If we can help, let us help.’

Imagine your 2021 to-do list including not one but two transplants: kidney — and heart. You don’t know what day or month you’ll get the call to come in; you just know your life depends on it.

It’s a lot for a person to fathom, and for Demetria McDonald, it follows an eventful 18 months  that included being diagnosed with congestive heart failure —  nevermind a pandemic that forced her to isolate and her employer to cut staff hours.

Heart failure. She never imagined this. She’s 50. And a mom. While she says she is “super close” to her two daughers — one a journalism student at N.C. A&T and the older beginning her career — she also shields them from too much information. “They have a lot of things to deal with on their own,” McDonald says. “I don’t want to burden them.”

They know about her health concerns. In fact, they’re terrified, McDonald says. What they don’t know is how close McDonald has come to having her utilities cut off. Or to losing her home.

When she was first diagnosed in 2019, her budget was already tight. Then she was admitted to the hospital in critical condition.

Her heart was in trouble and she needed an LVAD ASAP. A left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, is a mechanical pump that’s implanted inside a person's chest to help a weakened heart pump blood. Unlike a total artificial heart, the LVAD doesn't replace the heart. It just helps it do its job.

“She’s persistent and she wants a healthy life,” cardiologist Dr. Dalton McLean says. “She’s a great patient who does exactly what we want all patients to do: eat well, exercise, etc. She’s had four false starts for her transplant, but never gave up. She still has faith in the process, and our team wants to be her advocate.”

The Cone Health team helped stabilize and care for McDonald. They could fix her heart, but they couldn’t help with the fact that while she was hospitalized, she got behind in her utilities because she was unable to work the part-time job.

Or could they?

“This is exactly what the Heart Patient Care Fund is for,” says Ruth Heyd, philanthropy officer. “Caring community members and Cone Health staff contribute to this fund so that our patients can focus on getting better knowing that some of their financial stress is eased. If a patient doesn’t have electricity or a healthy meal or a roof over their head, how can they get well?” 

Ruth Fisher (Cone Health Vice President, Heart & Vascular Center, Imaging Services & Respiratory Care) echoes Heyd. “The Patient Care Fund has had a profound impact on our patients’ lives and gives us another tool in our tool belt to treat the whole patient, understanding that it takes more than medicine to support the patients in our community for their wellness needs.”

McDonald’s story has many ups and downs. In addition to her Social Security disability income, McDonald worked a part-time job at the local community center. She was able to return in October 2019, but received a shut-off notice from the power company a month later . The Patient Care Fund helped  pay the  bill and things began to level out. She maintained her part-time job and her monthly household finances — then COVID-19 hit and she was laid off. By late August 2020, she was struggling to meet her mortgage bill and needed a small amount to bridge her payment.

Cone Health was there.

“The staff, the team and the assistance they gave me was so important and so appreciated,” McDonald says. “They understand the hardships that people have. It is really hard for me to ask for help, but they make you feel like you can be open to it. They don’t want that stress on you when you’re sick. They say, ‘If we can help, let us help.’ If it was not for that program and the kind people who donate to it, I would have been homeless.”

Cone Health cares in other ways, too. McDonald says they regularly call and check on her. They ask if she needs food and whether she’s receiving her medications.

“They took a chance on me,” McDonald says. “They didn’t discard me. And they are still super attentive to this day. They help lessen the burden on my family, and that’s important so that my daughters can do what they need to do — get their degree and work.”

McDonald is recovering well from a kidney transplant she had in January 2021 and is currently awaiting a new heart.

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