By Sam Prickett
Megan Gagliardi Hilt was 18 years old, on the cusp of graduating from Mountain Brook High School and starting college at Samford University, when she noticed that something was wrong.
“I was having shortness of breath, a really severe cough when I would go to lay down for bed each night, and I just felt really lethargic,” she said. “I thought I was sick with something but that it would go away. But I eventually realized that it wasn’t going away.”
She didn’t realize it then, but she was at the beginning of a years-long medical struggle – one that, nine years later, would lead to her being named the featured survivor at the American Heart Association’s Birmingham Heart Ball, being held March 14.
After briefly being misdiagnosed with a panic disorder, Hilt discovered that she had dilated cardiomyopathy – an enlarged heart.
“It wasn’t pumping blood to my organs and throughout my body very well,” she said. ‘I’d always been a healthy kid, never had any major issues, so this was a big shock to my family.”
She was placed on medication to remedy the issue, but it wasn’t effective enough. So in late 2011, she was placed on the national waiting list for a heart transplant.
“I got the call on my 19th birthday, which was in March 2012,” she said. “They notified me that they had a heart for me. It was the best birthday present I’ll ever get. Now when I have my birthday, we celebrate two birthdays – my actual birthday and then receiving my heart transplant, because that was such a huge thing for me.”
The transplant was done by surgeons at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and less than two weeks later, Hilt was told she could go home.
“If you’ve ever been through anything like this, you know it’s kind of a freakout moment, because you’ve been around nurses and doctors in a hospital setting. For them to say, ‘OK, you’re free to go,’ is a really nerve-wracking thing,” she said. “But fortunately, my house was about 15 minutes away from UAB, so I felt safe and comfortable knowing that the hospital was a short drive away if anything happened.”
She spent the rest of the spring recovering, taking medication to prevent her body from rejecting the new heart and slowly developing an exercise routine.
“That was my biggest objective, to get healthy again and be able to go out and exercise,” she said. It’s a habit that stuck with her. “I fell so much in love with exercising that I became really interested in running,” she said. “Since I had my heart transplant, I have run three half-marathons.”
The Other Shoe Drops
Hilt returned to Samford for the 2012 fall semester, but by Christmas, she had once again started to feel ill.
“I was having night sweats, and one of the lymph nodes in my neck was completely enlarged,” she said. “It looked like a golf ball. I would have fevers that would pop up from time to time and then go away. It was December, so I thought maybe I had contracted pneumonia or the flu from someone.”
To be safe, she called her transplant team at UAB. They called her into the hospital, ran a series of tests and informed her that she had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.
“It’s a type of cancer that can occur in transplant patients because of the large amount of immunosuppressant medication that they put you on,” Hilt said. “It was a complete shock to me. Here I was having gone through a heart transplant, and now I’m being told that I have cancer.”
What followed was a six-week round of chemotherapy, which took a physical toll.
“I had every type of typical cancer symptom that you can see with people who are going through chemo,” she said. “I lost my hair, I was very lethargic, very pale. I wore a mask all the time to protect me from germs, and, again, I took time off from school because I didn’t have enough of an immune system to be around anyone.”
The chemotherapy was successful; Hilt was soon declared cancer-free and returned to Samford, receiving a degree in journalism and mass communications. Now 26, she is married and works full-time as an event planner for a local hotel.
“What I’ve been through, it’s had a profound effect on me,” Hilt said. “To go through something like that at such a young age is really life-changing. It really makes you appreciate your every day.
“At that point in time, when you’re 18, you’re not necessarily thinking about your health. You’re more focused on having fun, being in college and hanging out with friends. To go through something like that really makes you appreciate the health that you do have.”
One of the Lucky Ones
“I am very fortunate and blessed that I did receive a heart transplant,” she said. “There are so many people out there that don’t receive them, who don’t get to continue on in this blessing of life that I’ve gotten to have … .
“People ask me all the time, ‘Do you wish that you had never been given any of this? Do you wish that you didn’t have to go through cancer or chemotherapy or any of that?’ And I always tell people, ‘No, it’s shaped me into the person I’ve become today.’ I’m so thankful for the life that I have.”
With her role as the featured survivor for the American Heart Association’s Birmingham Heart Ball, which will be at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, Hilt hopes to turn that gratitude into fundraising that can help others afflicted by heart issues.
“(The American Heart Association) are such huge advocates for raising awareness of heart disease,” she said. “What boggles my mind is, they do so much fundraising work, collecting donations that always go toward research. That always puts it into perspective for me … .
“Medicine changes each and every year, and it just blows my mind how they continue to grow in what they study and what they learn. I’m just very thankful for them and the work that they do.”
For more information about the Birmingham Heart Ball, visit heart.org/en/affiliates/alabama/birmingham#events.