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Young Mom's Plight Wins the Hearts of Giving San Diegans

February 09, 1988|CURTIS L. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

Two and a half years ago, LeNore Flowers was on top of the world. She had just married and given birth to a beautiful baby girl.

But immediately following the birth of her daughter, LeNore began to experience chest pains and had difficulty breathing. At the time, the 16-year-old new mother wasn't alarmed because she thought she was too young to have a heart problem and figured the pain would eventually go away. It never did.

One night she had to be rushed to Sharp Memorial Hospital because she couldn't breathe. At first it appeared that LeNore had suffered an asthma attack, but after several more visits to the hospital, she was diagnosed as having post-artum cardiomyopathy, a disease that weakens the heart muscle.

Cause Unknown

The cause of the disease is unknown, but doctors speculate that it might be hereditary or transmitted by a virus. It most often strikes two kinds of people: Those who have had multiple heart attacks, and young women who have recently given birth.

In LeNore's case, doctors believe that the stress put on her heart during the pregnancy caused it to weaken, said Liz LaToure, transplant coordinator at Sharp Memorial Hospital.

While doctors discovered the disease in its early stages, there was nothing they could do for LeNore because it can't be corrected by surgery or medication.

They sent her home, where the chest pains eventually stopped and LeNore concentrated on taking care of her young family.

Everything was going well until last June, when she suffered two strokes, which left her unable to walk and her left arm paralyzed.

Doctors brought her mother, LaGhana Packer, a double dose of bad news: Not only would her daughter never walk or regain the use of her left arm again, they also told her that LeNore would need a new heart, an operation that would cost $136,000.

Packer said that the whole ordeal has been difficult, that she watched LeNore go from being an active person who participated on the swim and drill teams while a student at El Cajon High School to a person who has to spend most of her day resting.

Low on Transplant List

Then, doctors told her that because of LeNore's weakened condition, she would be low on their list for a transplant.

"At the time, because of the two strokes, LeNore wasn't a good candidate for the heart donor list and her name probably would have been placed at the bottom of the list," Packer said.

Despite the news of needing a heart, LeNore didn't give up. She regained her strength, even relearned to walk.

"When the doctors told me that there was no hope, I didn't give up because she is strong, and I knew she would pull through," Packer said at her San Diego home late last week.

It was this strength and courage shown by LeNore that led Dr. Peter Hoagland of Sharp Memorial to nominate her to be placed at the top of the hospital's heart donor list, Packer said.

But topping the donor list was just half the battle. LeNore--a Medi-Cal recipient--needed to raise the $136,000 the operation would cost. (The state-funded Medi-Cal program will pay for a heart transplant only if it is performed at Stanford University Medical Center.)

Things began to take a turn for the better when the staff at Sharp Memorial offered to perform the operation free of charge--it performs 12 to 16 heart transplants a year--which cut its cost to $70,000.

Left with no other options, Packer, a housewife, and LeNore turned to the people of San Diego for help, and they responded by raising a total of more than $40,000.

With the help of Vernon Sukuma of the Black Federation, black community newspapers, and radio stations that aired weekly pledge-a-thon spots, more than $24,000 was raised.

Then there was Debbie Brown of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, who organized a $100-a-plate "Have-a-Heart" dinner that raised $16,000.

Evelyn Peters, owner of LaCarlen's Apparel put on a fashion show that raised $700.

And Mario L. Kimble of San Diego, who used to wear as much jewelry as "Mr. T," was so touched by the plight of LeNore that he sold all of his jewelry and donated the proceeds--$1,159--to the heart fund.

On Saturday, Pilgrim Progressive Baptist Church raised $4,000 more for LeNore's cause.

But despite the outpouring of community support, the heart fund was still about $25,000 short. In stepped Cox Cable Company, which not only pledged $10,000 to the heart fund, but vouched to cover the remaining money needed until it could be raised by the community so that the operation could be performed immediately.

"We wanted her to have the ability to have the transplant as quickly as possible," said Robert McRann, vice president and general manager of Cox Cable. "About 30% of the people die while waiting on the table. We will worry about how to raise the funds later on."

LaToure said that the operation, which takes as long as six hours, would be performed as soon as a donor could be found. "If the heart isn't rejected by LeNore's body, she would be allowed to go home and lead a normal life as an outpatient about 14 days after the operation is performed," LaToure said.

"We never expected anything less from the people of San Diego," Packer said. "We have seen them give and help people in need before, so we knew they would come to our aid. San Diego is America's finest city."

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