Fifteen years ago, Aubrey Reeves of Allen faced an operation so difficult, it had never been performed by any surgeon at Children’s Medical Center Dallas.

Reeves suffered from heart conditions since she was 3, due to a rare heart defect called Ebstein anomaly, in which the tricuspid valve is positioned in the wrong position and causes the valve’s flaps to form in an irregular shape, decreasing the heart’s blood pumping efficiency.

By the time she was 8, Reeves had a heart transplant that led to transplant coronary artery disease, a narrowing of the arteries that occurs in some transplant patients. It can be potentially fatal. During her hospital stay while she was waiting for another heart donor, her kidneys also failed.

“I remember just a lot of being in the hospital, not really knowing that I was sick or feeling bad or anything, just that I was in the hospital for some reason,” Aubrey says.

Fortunately, her doctors at Children’s Medical Center found a heart and a kidney match and performed the hospital’s first dual heart and kidney transplant operation on her in 2005. Now, at 23, she’s pursuing her own medical career as a medical assistant and hopes to work in the very same hospital that saved her.

“With the things that have happened to me over my entire life, I couldn’t really see me doing anything else,” Aubrey says. “Now that I’m older, I know that I can do something different if I chose to, but I want to try and finish this and see if I can start working in the medical field and see if I like it.”

Courtesy of Children’s Medical Center Dallas

Aubrey’s medical ordeal may have improved over time; it wasn’t without its obstacles. The heart transplant was a success, but the kidney she received led to some other medical complications and did not “wake up at first,” her mother Cheryl says.

“It took several days for it to function,” she says. “Eventually it did wake up and that kidney lasted until 2016. She had to go on dialysis and last year, she needed another kidney transplant, so I donated my kidney to her.”

Aubrey has positive memories of her hospital stays because her family and the staff did so much to make it seem less like a hospital room and more like home. They decorated her bed, for example, with a princess canopy. Thanks to these comforting efforts and her medical staff’s work, Aubrey says it made it somewhat easier to deal with the pain caused by medication or needles for blood work.

“When we think about kids in the hospital, especially for kids who are in the hospital for months at a time, we think about them being hooked up to machines or not interacting but we really tried to make things as normal as possible for her,” her mother says. “We could put her in a wheelchair and if the weather was nice, we could take her for a stroll around the grounds.”

Courtesy of Children’s Medical Center Dallas

Aubrey’s experiences have inspired her to pursue her own medical career. Aubrey says she studying for her medical certification at Collin College and hopes to one day work at Children’s Medical Center Dallas as an assistant either in cardiology or dermatology.

There are concerns about the risk posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, but Aubrey is determined to find a way. “I don’t know if I can wait,” she says. “I’m probably going to have to do it and take extra precautions. I’m very hesitant to start now that there are more cases coming up. It’s kind of nerve racking.”

Her mother says even though the situation is tricky, her daughter is still “so driven and so excited about entering the medical field.”

“I just really want to be there for kids like me and kind of help ease parents’ minds about whether a transplant is the best course of action for their child,” Aubrey says. “For them, being able to see someone as old as I am may help them.”

Danny Gallagher

Danny Gallagher is a writer based in Dallas. His stories and features have appeared in and on CNET, Cracked, MTV Online, Mandatory.com, Retro Gamer, Esquire and The Dallas Observer.