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Osakis woman continues recovery after heart transplant

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Tonya Christman's story of survival is a powerful lesson in persistence and faith.

As her health faltered for many years, her faith in God was healing - to her and everyone following her journey.

Three months ago, Tonya received a new heart.

"I've learned about trusting God - not doubting that he would do what he promises," she said. "I've learned about patience and God's sovereignty."

On February 24, in Los Angeles, California, as one life ended, another was given a second chance.

Tonya's journey

Tonya (Sadlemyer) is an Osakis native and since 8th grade, she said she always had trouble breathing.

Doctors diagnosed her with heart murmur and exercise induced asthma.

"I was given an inhaler and that was about it," she said.

Life went on and she married her husband, David, in 1993.

One year later, she was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HTC) - it's the thickening of the walls of the heart, making it hard for the heart to pump.

"Finally, there was a reason why I could never breathe like I wanted to," Tonya said.

By 1998, Tonya said she was walking in the park and just couldn't keep up with everyone and after a trip to the emergency room, it was confirmed that she had congestive heart failure (CHF).

Doctors prescribed a beta-blocker to help her heart pump better.

"Years went by and we moved back to Osakis in June of 2003 to purchase my childhood home when my mom and dad moved to the farm. I was tired a lot but doing pretty good and trying to lose some weight," she said.

The Christmans were told not to have children because HTC is congenital. Plus, doctors advised her that pregnancy would be hard on Tonya's body, making it likely she'd need a heart transplant much sooner.

"We decided to try for adoption and along came Parker in February of 2005. We were overjoyed," Tonya said.

One day in the spring of 2006 Tonya ended up in the ER because her heart was racing.

Then, in December of 2006 the ambulance was called to her home where paramedics shocked her heart in the family's home.

"They couldn't find a pulse. I was in and out of the ER and regular visits to Abbott Northwestern - Minneapolis Heart Institute," she explained.

In August 2007, Tonya had a stroke and her fourth ablation - a surgery that zaps the nerves that cause atrial fibrillation.

She worked to recover and stayed relatively healthy until January 2008 when she received a pacemaker.

She was also put on a heart transplant waiting list and told it would be a one-to-two-year wait.

On July 4, 2009, Tonya had chest pain and was told she was in the early stages of congestive heart failure.

Last November, after a series of adverse health events, doctors ordered Tonya to stay in the hospital until a heart became available.

On December 7, she was put at the top of the waiting list for a heart.

On December 10, she was taken off the waiting list due to lung problems.

Eleven days later, she was moved down the waiting list as she battled infections.

On December 27, she was put back at the top of the heart recipient waiting list.

"Most of the time I was so sick that I didn't even realize when I was off or on the list. I just wanted to feel better," Tonya said. "I didn't realize that I was knocking on heaven's door at one point. My liver and kidneys started to fail and I had to have three more blood transfusions. I always knew that Jesus was there with me. The worst part for me was being away from my family - and especially Dave and Parker. I think for David and my family it was harder because they were aware of everything."

New year, new heart

Along with the New Year came a new health care plan for Tonya - she was advised by doctors to go California.

If she stayed in Minnesota, odds were she wouldn't receive a heart for three to four years and doctors told her she wasn't going to make it that long - not even a few more months.

Tonya explained, "The pressures in my heart were getting too high and my arteries going to my lungs were going to get too stiff to accept a new heart. At that point there was nothing [Abbott Northwestern Medical Center] could do for me. So they sent me to Cedars-Sinai where they thought it might be six months to a year before I got a new heart."

At Abbott Northwestern, the radius for potential heart donors is 500 miles and the population is so much less here than that of Cedars-Sinai where the radius is 2,000 miles for a heart donor.

"Also, the guru of antibodies/antigens was at Cedars-Sinai," Tonya said. "They knew I would be in better hands there because they have all the equipment and knowledge and they do transplants all the time. It's a well-oiled machine. They have the knowledge at Abbott and the experience, but not all the equipment for my special circumstance."

She remained at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, waiting for a new heart, for about six weeks.

Then, on February 24, the Christmans received a call that a heart was available.

"I was in shock at that point. I texted and then called David and said, 'They have a heart for me and I'm not kidding!' I prayed and cried and praised the Lord," Tonya said.

The adrenaline was pumping and Tonya said, at that point, she was just ready to get the transplant surgery over with.

"I knew that regardless of what happened - whether I woke up in heaven or at the hospital - I would be happy."

Tonya's family made it in to visit with her for about 45 minutes before they took her into surgery.

"I didn't say good-bye to David, I just said, 'See you on the flip side!' We exchanged a knowing look and away we went," she said.

That day, in a gleeful message on her Caringbridge website, David posted a brief note: "The helicopter has landed, her heart has arrived."

Three days after she received her new heart, Tonya was up and walking around the intensive care unit; five days later she walked eight laps around the unit.

On March 8, Tonya wrote that she was feeling stronger every day.

As she continued to heal, the Christmans moved into an apartment near the hospital.

On April 29, the Christman family returned to Minnesota.

Her care continues at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Minneapolis Heart Institute.

Her relationship with God

When asked how she would sum up her relationship with God through this journey, Tonya wrote: "In one word, growing. How do you go from saying you trust God to actually trusting God? There is so much to say about this subject. I don't know where to begin. I know it starts with prayer and spending time in his word. Spending time with him. Listening. Worshiping. Praising. Sharing your heart out of obedience - obedience is how we show God we love him. Doing what his word says, trusting him. Seeking him as if we are seeking silver or gold. If that is true he promises to open the floodgates of heaven and supply our needs. That has been the case with us. We have been overwhelmed with his faithfulness."