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In 2015, Yasmin Mullings was relishing a fast-paced life. In her role as a county prosecutor in St. Paul, Minnesota, she regularly handled complex and challenging cases. Outside of work, she was a marathon runner, exercise enthusiast, world-traveler and mentor to middle-school girls. Fit and healthy, Yasmin says medical concerns weren't on her radar.
That changed dramatically in early 2016. Yasmin returned to running after a short hiatus, and instead of going her usual 10-plus miles, she couldn't run even one. The incident was the beginning of a medical odyssey that, within six months, took her to from local care providers to Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus and then to Mayo Clinic's Arizona campus, where she ultimately received a heart transplant.
"The kindness, the compassion, the caring, the humanness of what the people at Mayo Clinic did for me throughout this process is something I didn't expect," Yasmin says. "Everyone — both in Rochester and Arizona — made me feel like they wanted to take care of me. They wanted me to be OK. They wanted me to be emotionally and physically ready and able to cope. They wanted to be part of it with me. These people could not have treated me any better if I was their own family member."
In December 2015, Yasmin began the first of three courtroom trials scheduled back-to-back. During that time, she was also training for a marathon to be held in June. By early February, as Yasmin began the third trial, her grueling schedule had taken its toll, and she was battling a severe cold. She took a few weeks off from running, finished the trial, and began to feel better. Yasmin got on her treadmill to restart her marathon training, but before she hit the one-mile mark, she was so short of breath, she had to stop.
"Before the cold, I had been feeling super healthy, running 17 or 18 miles on the weekends," she says. "Then I couldn't run a mile? I had no idea what was happening."
Her local physicians were stumped, too. Within a month, Yasmin had five medical appointments, with no answers. Meanwhile, her health deteriorated. In early March, she stood up to make an argument in court and briefly lost consciousness. A trip to the emergency room didn't reveal any clues. The providers there thought she might have a lung condition called pleurisy. But that wasn't the case. She returned home without a solution.
"That night, I couldn't lie down to go to sleep," Yasmin says. "I felt like I was drowning. I couldn't catch my breath. I've had asthma since I was a child, but it's been well-controlled for years. Some of the health care professionals said it must be that. I knew it wasn't. I know what asthma feels like. This wasn't the same."
Yasmin went back to the local health care clinic the next day and saw a new physician. He suspected something different. He thought her symptoms could be the result of a heart problem and sent Yasmin to see a cardiologist.
An echocardiogram and other tests confirmed those suspicions. They revealed that a virus had infected Yasmin's heart, damaging the middle layer of the heart wall, called the myocardium. That condition, known as viral myocarditis, affected her heart's ability to pump blood and led to heart failure.
Heart failure sometimes can be managed with medication. But Yasmin's symptoms continued to get worse despite taking a variety of medications. She was in and out of the hospital several times. Then a friend urged her to try a different tactic.
"She was at the hospital with me and said, 'They don't have any answers for you here, Yasmin. You've been here three times, and it's not getting any better,'" Yasmin recalls. "Then she said, 'I'm going to call Mayo Clinic to see if they can get you in.' That's what she did, and I got an appointment."
In April 2016, Yasmin traveled to Rochester, Minnesota, for three days of tests and appointments. During that time, she met with John Schirger, M.D., in Mayo Clinic's Division of Cardiovascular Diseases. He told her the tests confirmed the diagnosis of viral myocarditis. He also found that damage from the infection enlarged the chambers of her heart — a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy — and that was the underlying cause of Yasmin's heart failure. After talking with Dr. Schirger, Yasmin finally felt as if she understood what she was facing.
"He clearly explained to me what was going on, so I knew how and why this was happening to me," Yasmin says. "In the three days I spent at Mayo Clinic, I received more information and useful recommendations than anything I had previously."
Yasmin also soon came to realize that her situation was much more serious than she had imagined. Her heart was in severe failure. In the weeks following her first Mayo Clinic visit, efforts to help it heal didn't work, and she was admitted to Mayo Clinic Hospital — Rochester. In early June, Yasmin's Mayo Clinic care team told her it was time to consider a transplant.
"When Dr. Schirger said the words 'heart transplant,' I can only imagine the look on my face. I was shocked," she says. "I was 52 years old. I didn't know of anyone who had an organ transplant of any kind. No one in my family ever had heart issues. I just kept thinking, 'How is this possible?'"
At first, Yasmin says she was overwhelmed by the prospect of a transplant. Living alone with no family in the Midwest, she wasn't sure she could handle going through the transplant process by herself. But she soon found out that her care team was ready and willing to support her.
"The doctors and nurses were so amazing to me. In the first rush of everything, I was bombarded with so much information. But every time the doctors met with me, one of the nurses would stay in the room, too, so I could ask them questions later if I needed to," she says. "They would also get the doctors back if I had questions they couldn't answer or if I felt uncomfortable or unsure about what we were doing.
"I don't believe for one second that anyone else could have convinced me that a transplant was the way to go," she adds. "But they did. They were there with me, and I never felt like I was on my own."
After being approved for a heart transplant and added to the waiting list, Yasmin learned that her wait in Minnesota would likely be six to 12 months. With her heart getting worse by the day, her care team feared that she didn't have that long. So they offered another option. Yasmin could be transferred to Mayo Clinic's Arizona campus, where her wait for a transplant would likely be shorter. Yasmin quickly agreed. Arrangements were promptly made, and within five days, she was in Arizona.
"I wasn't worried about going to Arizona because it's still Mayo Clinic. Different location, different people, but Mayo is Mayo," she says. "Everyone in Arizona is just as fabulous as the people in Rochester."
Her care team had been correct in their assessment of the wait time. Yasmin arrived in Arizona on a Thursday. She received her heart transplant the following Wednesday — July 20, 2016. Recovery went smoothly, and she was back home in St. Paul in less than three months.
Yasmin still has regular checkups at Mayo Clinic and requires periodic heart biopsies to make sure her transplanted heart is healthy. But she feels great. Within three months of the transplant, with her care team's encouragement, she was back to running. She's now returned to working full-time, too, although not yet taking courtroom cases. And she's started traveling again.
Reflecting on all she's been through since that fateful day on the treadmill in February 2016, Yasmin says she most admires the level of personal care she received during her time at Mayo Clinic.
"I've been a prosecutor for 28 years. No matter what, I always want victims to know they are not just another case to me. So I don't know why it so shocked me that was the experience I got at Mayo Clinic every step of the way. They cared about me as a person, an individual," she says. "I cannot tell you of even one time in my Mayo Clinic experience that I said, 'Oh, I don't like the way I was treated.' By anyone. It's just something about the way they are. What they do there is so awesome."