Heart of a Winner: How Shae Brown’s Heart Transplant Changed Her Life

Transplant at Baylor St. Luke’s Helps Patient Run a Race She’ll Never Forget

Crossing the finish line at the 2017 Chicago Marathon is one of the greatest highlights of Shae Brown’s life.

But how she achieved it—and who ran by her side—is even more remarkable.

A Weakening Heart

When Shae Brown of Shiner, Texas, was 16, she was diagnosed with stage 4 rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of cancer in the abdominal muscle wall.

“I was so young and hadn’t lived my life,” said Shae, now age 50. “I didn’t want to die.”

For the next five years, she battled the cancer, going through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. A side effect of Adriamycin, the chemotherapy drug she was taking—nicknamed the “Red Devil”—was that it would gradually weaken her heart.

At age 28, while preparing for the Torch Run in support of the Special Olympics, her heart became so weak that she ended up in the emergency room with congestive heart failure. She was referred to Dr. John Seger, cardiac electrophysiologist at Baylor St. Luke’s, and received a pacemaker implant. Though it improved her heart rate to a healthy 80 beats per minute, blood and oxygen still struggled to travel throughout her body.

“During that time, I could do my normal daily stuff, but my heart continued to get weaker, and my symptoms got worse,” Shae said. “My lips turned blue, and I lost coloring in my face. Toward the end, my legs were hurting, and it was hard to climb up the stairs in my own house. I could make it halfway but then would have to catch my breath.”

Dr. Seger then referred Shae to Dr. Reynolds Delgado, a cardiologist specializing in heart failure and heart transplantation, in April 2012. He recommended she be placed on the heart transplant list.

However, as hopeful as she was waiting for a healthy heart, she also had doubts she would live much longer—even with a new heart.

“I was excited, but was also really scared in the beginning,” she said. “I had known people who had lung, kidney, and heart transplants, and they never lived longer than about five years. I didn’t think I’d live any longer than that myself.”

But then, one Sunday at church, her prayer was answered by a guest minister at church, whom she had never met.

“He came up to me personally and told me he had a special message from God,” Shae recalled. “He told me that God wants me to remember what He’s done for me in the past, that God sees every tear, every fear, and wanted me to live. That message gave me peace. I left church that morning not feeling scared anymore. I felt like God knew who I was, that He had my back, and from that moment on that I was going to be OK.”

In May 2013, Shae received a call she would never forget: her doctors had found a potential heart.

“I was at work when I got the call,” said Shae, who is a dental hygienist. “They told me to stay close to my phone and would call me with details. My boss took me to lunch to celebrate, but once we sat down at the restaurant with our plates, I got the call that they had a heart. They took me into surgery that night and did the transplant.”

Shae received the heart of Alyssa Miller, a 24-year-old who died that same day after a long illness.

A New Beginning

While recovering at the hospital, a nurse asked Shae if there was anything she wanted to accomplish with her new heart.

“I told her I wanted to run a marathon,” Shae said. “I had always enjoyed running before, but I thought that if I’m going to be healthy again, it would be so cool to show the world what somebody as sick as me could do with a transplant. That I could train, be healthy, and run a marathon.”

Two years after her transplant, Shae wrote Alyssa’s family, expressing gratitude for the heart. Alyssa’s father, Fred, her mother, Barbara, and twin sister, Eva, traveled from Chicago to Shiner to meet Shae personally. Fred asked Shae the very same question her nurse did: “What do you want to do?”

“I want to run a marathon,” she told Fred.

Coincidentally, Fred was a runner himself. He had run 10 marathons and numerous half marathons throughout his life but hadn’t run much since Alyssa died.

“Fred emailed me the next day and said, ‘If you’re really serious about running a marathon, I will run one with you,’” Shae recalled.

She then began training at a high school track for the 26.2-mile race. Fred was able to register for the Chicago Marathon through the lottery process and sent Shae the link. Shae was able to run by participating in a charity team. She chose to represent the Children’s Oncology Center, which helped send children with cancer and their families to a weeklong summer camp, much like the one she attended when she was young.

“A real highlight of my life was going off to summer camp with my sister,” she said. “To be part of the team, I had to raise at least $1,500, but by the deadline, I had raised $4,000. It made me proud to know I could help these kids experience what I experienced as a teenager.”

Born to Run

As Shae continued to train, she and Fred communicated constantly, strengthening their connection.

“We shared this common bond with running. He and I would text back and forth daily telling each other dad jokes, tips on running, articles to read, just bantering back and forth,” she said. “I felt I had this bond with this man whose daughter was partially living on in me.”

The Chicago Marathon date arrived before Shae knew it. The two ran together, side by side.

“The first 13 miles flew by; it was the last six miles that was really hard,” she said. “But every time I turned to look at him, there was no way I could quit. I was honoring Alyssa by running this marathon. I wanted to do it in her memory and in honor of her because it was through her death that I was able to live.”

Together, they crossed the finish line, with Shae feeling so proud and overwhelmed with emotion. She did it.

“I gave Fred a big hug and started crying happy tears,” she said. “I had accomplished it because he helped me and he ran beside me.”

Shae and the Miller family continue to remain close. Since the Chicago Marathon, she and Fred ran the Houston Half Marathon in January 2018 and the Chicago Half in September.

“We can feel the relationship growing and getting stronger,” she said. “Fred has told me that he would never stop talking to me. I think it really helps him to have a relationship with me.”

Grateful to Be Alive

As Shae looks back at her life, she continues to be grateful for Dr. Delgado, Dr. Seger, and the rest of the clinical staff at Baylor St. Luke’s, who provided exceptional healthcare for her through the years.

“My recovery was not fun. It was not easy, but the nurses and the doctors were fabulous,” she said. “Dr. Seger was the best at what he did, and Dr. Delgado knows what he’s doing. He told me from the beginning that he was going to find me the perfect heart, and he did. God has placed me with the best doctors, and I thank God every day that I’m alive.”

What’s more, whenever Dr. Delgado has a patient who is hesitant to get a heart transplant, he tells them Shae’s story.

“He pulls out the NBC News video of me running the Chicago Marathon and tells the patient, ‘This was one of my patients—and look at her now after her transplant.’ His patients leave his office with a totally different attitude.”

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