Nicole Luederitz is a woman with a lot of heart. Twice as much, in fact, as just about anyone else.
The 34-year-old has two hearts beating independently after an unusual transplant operation at UCLA Medical Center where a donated heart was attached to her own damaged one.
The unique piggyback hookup eliminated the malfunctioning right ventricle to Luederitz's old heart, which was rapidly failing due to a rare congenital heart disease.
Surgeons who handled the delicate 12-hour operation March 6 say that they went into the procedure realizing that Luederitz's heart defect would allow them to leave her old heart in place if necessary.
And that's what happened when they found out her new one was slightly smaller than her old one, and that her existing left ventricle was still pumping perfectly.
Only about 50 people in the United States have emerged from surgery with two hearts, according to UCLA doctors.
But you don't have to tell Luederitz how notable that makes her.
Her whole adult life has been connected with the hearts of others--first as a professional CPR instructor for the Red Cross and in recent years as a cardiac monitor specialist at a Santa Monica hospital.
For years she has volunteered at an annual Catalina summer camp for children who have undergone heart transplants and bypass operations.
As she continued her recuperation Monday at the Westwood medical center, Luederitz was mapping plans to return to her cardiac work at St. John's Hospital with a vigor she hasn't had in years.
"I have twice the love for people now," she said, glancing about her hospital room filled with heart-shaped balloons and get-well cards and a display of photographs taken at last summer's pediatric heart patient camp, Camp Del Corazon.
"I can't put into words how awesome it is to have the heart of another person inside of me. I realize I have a responsibility to live the best life I can now."
Luederitz was a marathon runner before a fainting spell in 1992 signaled a health problem that doctors would eventually diagnose as arrhythmigenic right ventricular dysplasia.
It's a rare condition, said medical experts who estimate it affects about 1 in 100,000. Over time, it deposits fat into the right ventricular muscle that pumps blood into the lungs. As the right ventricle loses its effectiveness, it grows larger.
Luederitz underwent open heart surgery twice in recent years. A defibrillator was implanted to steady her heart rate in the first operation, and some of the swollen heart muscle was removed during the second one. Both procedures helped for a while.
Heart surgeon Dr. Hillel Laks directed this month's operation, which he said was UCLA's first of its kind. He used a tube made out of gortex, a material found in ski jackets, to connect the two hearts.
Most of the remaining right ventricle was removed during this month's transplant operation to make room for the donor heart, said Dr. Jamie Moriguchi, one of Luederitz's cardiologists.
"The donor heart was a young heart" from a 12-year-old. "It slipped right in there," Moriguchi said.
Others in the local cardiac community who are friends of Luederitz have kept close tabs on her recovery.
"We're thrilled. It's such an odd surgery," said Judi Giarratano, a cardiac monitor technician who works with Luederitz at St. John's Hospital. "Nikki's got the biggest heart in the world."
Patients and co-workers have filled "Nikki's Mailbox" on the hospital cardiac floor with cards sent daily to Luederitz, Giarratano said.
One of Luederitz's friends, UCLA cardiac nurse Lisa Knight, the co-founder of Camp Del Corazon, has looked in on her daily. "I've known Nikki for 12 years and it was unbelievable to see someone so strong and healthy get so sick," Knight said Monday. "Now the color is back in her face, her eyes are sparkling."
Luederitz admits she was "hanging on by my fingernails" when her new heart was implanted. She said if she knew the identity of the anonymous donor she would "thank the family that gave me this gift."
In a heartbeat.