I’ve had two heart transplants – now I’m a doctor

Turning into a physician takes years of intense examine, late nights and dedication. For Gianna Paniagua, it was all taken — plus two coronary heart transplants.

Paniagua, 31, is likely one of the nation’s longest-running toddler coronary heart transplant recipients—and now, in opposition to all odds, she’s enrolled in Columbia College’s Postbac Premed program, the place she’ll get the credit she wants to use to medical faculty a 12 months later.

“I am after what I would like at this very second,” Paniagua instructed The Submit of her sudden journey to get thus far. “Worry comes from feeling that one thing is lacking from me and I do not really feel like there may be something lacking.”

Baniagua, who was born on the Higher East Facet, was identified with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — a illness by which the center muscle enlarges, making it tougher to pump blood — when she was an toddler. She obtained her first coronary heart transplant in 1992 at Morgan Stanley Kids’s Hospital, New York-Presbyterian, when she was simply 14 months outdated. Regardless of being No. 1 on the transplant listing, Baniagua needed to wait three months earlier than being matched with a donor.

Gianna and her mother are in the hospital a few days after having her first heart transplant
This New York native underwent her first coronary heart transplant at simply 14 months outdated.

Going to the physician’s workplace quickly turned a routine for the inventive child, who did not really feel like he missed out on a lot rising up and dreamed of changing into a physician.

“He wasn’t there earlier than. That is not one thing I am sorry about,” mentioned Paniagua. It simply exists.”

It wasn’t till I received into faculty that I noticed it was totally different.

Baniagua stands next to one of its art installations

Paniagua creates paper-cutting amenities and sculptures.

She fell in love with arts and crafts whereas having fun with her visits to the hospital.


The creator studied effective artwork on the College of Pittsburgh and turned to her artwork to assist inform her story.


She turned to effective artwork fully when docs requested her to drop her pre-med research.


She began her first 12 months on the College of Pittsburgh by enrolling in pre-medical and effective arts lessons. However her classmates failed to grasp her incapacity to have fun and her medical workforce satisfied her to cancel enrollment from her pre-med research as a result of she did not have the “endurance” of the notoriously strenuous coursework.

She gave up her introductory main in her second 12 months, however continued to attend science and biology lessons. She used her classmates’ failure to grasp coronary heart illness as inspiration for her to begin telling her story by her art work.

“I assumed I could not change into a physician and artwork was one other method to enter the world of drugs,” mentioned Paniagua, who creates installations, paper items and sculptures. “Sufferers can see it, talk with it, and wholesome individuals can determine it.”

After graduating from faculty, Baniagua started experiencing continual ache and her well being started to deteriorate. Medical doctors ultimately came upon she had most cancers – a “gentle” case of post-transplant lymphoma often called PTLD – and she or he would wish to bear a spherical of chemotherapy.

Then she determined to pursue her desires and apply to Colombia, which she did similtaneously she began remedy.

Gianna Paniagua at Columbia University
She utilized to Columbia College and was accepted whereas present process chemotherapy.
James Kifume

Whereas recovering, in poor health and unfold out on the hospital lavatory flooring, Baniagua opened her electronic mail to ensure she was accepted.

“It was actually cool and bizarre and kinda surreal,” she mentioned of opening her acceptance electronic mail. “I’ve lastly been doing what I’ve needed to do since I used to be three.”

In July 2019, she was allowed to go away the hospital and moved into her residence in August. However she turned more and more in poor health throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and returned to dwell together with her mom in Pittsburgh. Strolling left her breathless and she or he suffered from coronary heart palpitations, extreme fluid retention, nausea, complications, and ultimately seizures.

Gianna does her homework in her hospital bed after organ rejection and heart failure at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in 2020

Paniagua continued her research at Columbia College in 2020 whereas experiencing organ rejection and coronary heart failure earlier than her second coronary heart transplant.

Gianna recovers on the day of her second heart transplant in February 2021 at Vanderbilt University

In February 2021, she underwent a coronary heart transplant for the second time and recovered horribly.

Baniagua plays a doctor when she was three years old

Baniagua needed to be a physician since she was three years outdated.

Gianna in her dorm room in Columbia Fall 2022

The 31-year-old is joyful to lastly comply with her desires.

“I felt like I used to be dying,” she mentioned.

Sadly, she was proper.

She was instructed she would wish a second coronary heart transplant, which is widespread for toddler coronary heart transplant sufferers, however Banyagawa wanted her coronary heart transplant instantly. With out it, she would solely have 4 months to dwell.

On prime of her bodily signs, Baniagua additionally started combating the “emotional lack of accepting that you just may not get up tomorrow.”

Getting accredited for a coronary heart transplant isn’t simple. Not solely did Paniagua join with the proper donor, hospital program, and surgical workforce, however she additionally needed to persuade docs that she needed to dwell.

One of many questions was: “Why do you should dwell?” I do not suppose something prepares you to have two docs gazing you and should combat on your life with verbal persuasion,” she mentioned. “The emotional stress was terrifying.”

Being one of many longest-lived toddler coronary heart transplant recipients within the nation has made her a high-risk affected person as a result of giant quantities of scar tissue brought on by many biopsies over time.

“It was sort of a kick within the intestine. Such as you did not actually have a likelihood,” she mentioned.

Luckily, Dr. Mary Kepler, previously of Vanderbilt College, was on the transplant workforce on the College of Pittsburgh Medical Heart and enrolled in a program there in a number of weeks.

In February of 2021, Paniagua efficiently obtained her second coronary heart transplant at Vanderbilt, enabling her to proceed her pre-medical research.

Nevertheless, her restoration was not simple. Paniagua remembers having the worst ache of her life – not with the ability to transfer her physique even a centimeter and needing to be on a ketamine drop simply to get to the toilet.

Photo of a heart transplant survivor Gianna Paniagua near the Columbia University campus
Paniagua hopes to graduate her program at Columbia College and apply to medical faculty inside a 12 months.
James Kifume

As we speak, as a lifelong affected person, she believes she will be able to supply a novel perspective to medical faculty and assist others like her.

“It is perhaps the perfect factor that ever occurred to me,” she mentioned. “You have been born with the persona that you’ve. You have been born with the abilities that you’ve. And the individuals you have been born with do very well in making an attempt to assist push by the transplant.”

She even just lately began a transplant help group in New York Metropolis.

“A million individuals have gone by this with you,” she mentioned, referring to the US finishing its millionth organ transplant this month. “It’s important to be one in 1,000,000.”