Keeping a Heart Beating


2010 Go Red Casting Call spokeswoman winner embraces her new heart

Life is not a guarantee. Live each day to the fullest, enjoy the little things, and treat your body with great respect,” are the words of advice from Keilee-Rae Miller, 29, a heart transplant survivor.

Miller, a bookkeeper at a local restaurant, had to fight from the beginning. In 1979, she was diagnosed with Transposition of the Great Vessels when she was born and had to undergo three major heart surgeries at six weeks, nine months, and two-years old. This congenital heart defect is somewhat rare, and instead of allowing the oxygenated blood to flow to the body, it circulates in the lungs.

She tried living her life as close to normal and, for the most part, she succeeded. She played volleyball and softball. She was active in gym and playing with the neighborhood children. “When I was 12, I started experiencing superaterial-attackacardia. The heart miss-fires with this condition causing arterial fibulation; my heart would race to an extreme speed for no apparent reason. I had these episodes so frequently that when I turned 14, I had a pacemaker implanted to be used as a defibulator to shock me out of these episodes when they occurred,” says Miller.

Through her twenties she never really gave a second thought to her heart. She was not overly cautious about her eating or drinking habits. In 2007 she was rushed to the Emergency Room at the Wyoming Fairview Hospital in Minnesota for days of testing after a crippling stomachache. Her appendix was removed, but the pain did not subside.

“I decided I was going to live healthier. I quit drinking, started exercising, and paid extreme attention to what I ate. I even hired a holistic nutritionist to help me get better. I lost over 60 pounds and felt like a whole new person. For a year I was feeling great, I was in the best shape of my life, or so I felt,” says Miller.

In February of 2009, her adult cardiologist told her it would not be smart for her to have children due to her heart condition. As she and Jason, her then-boyfriend, began to discuss the possibility of having children, she decided to have a tubal ligation. “After that surgery, my body, my heart, began to fall apart… I never felt the same after that surgical procedure,” says Miller.

She was prescribed Atenol, a beta-blocker, but it did not work for her. She could not climb a flight of stairs, she called, but they told her to eat more salt. She tried. She experienced dizziness, inability to concentrate or remember things. After a month of these symptoms, in addition to the normal racing heart and extra heartbeats, she began to gain weight.

“I would gain anywhere from three to five pounds, sometimes overnight. I even quit eating for three days just to see what would happen; I gained four pounds… I wasn’t even hungry anymore, but I ate because I knew I had too,” Miller says.

She was finally so fatigued that she was out of breath all the time, even when lying down. “I thought I was going crazy and losing my mind,” says Miller.

On Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009, she saw her primary doctor. A few tests were conducted and she not only found out that her liver was severally inflamed, and she gained 25 pounds in a month, but that she was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure (CHF).

“The next day I met my current Cardiologist, Dr. David Feldman, Medical Director of the Heart Failure and Transplant Department at Abbott Northwestern Heart Clinic and Hospital. I was overwhelmed with sadness and denial. There was no way I was a CHF patient. I was supposed to be living life, training for a 5K marathon with my friends. I was about to turn 30 in two months and was thoroughly looking forward to a new era of my life. I had met the man of my dreams and I was looking forward to a life with him. All of this came to an end for me when I heard the words, ‘you’re a congestive heart failure patient.’ I thought… ‘My life is over, I’m going to die.’ However, Dr. Feldman made Jason and I feel much better upon leaving my appointment that day. He put everything in perspective and designed a tentative, short-term plan as to how this process would go leading up to a heart transplant,” says Miller.

Two days later, her boyfriend proposed and the following day she was admitted into Abbott Northwestern Hospital for a week. The doctors helped her feel better. She was put on eight different medications and released on the conditions that she work as a host instead of a server, take it easy, watch her sodium intake, not to lift more than 10 pounds, and listen to her body.

Miller and Jason were wed on Nov. 28, 2009 and had planned their honeymoon for Feb. 16-26, 2010, but after the wedding Keilee’s health went downhill fast. “I’m married to a wonderful man, Jason, who has been my guardian angel as I went through this life changing journey,” says Miller.

“In December, after having a stress and lung test done, along with many other tests, I was asked if I wanted to be placed on the heart transplant list, my name was added to the national heart transplant list on December 18, 2009,” says Miller.

On Feb. 6, 2010, Miller sat down at the Go Red Casting Call to share her story and become the Twin Cities newest Go Red For Women spokeswoman. Only a few weeks later she would enter the hospital to the next chapter of her story. “I received my new heart on March 31. It came to life on its own, with the assistance of some warm water, at 3:01 a.m. I spent an additional nine days in the hospital recovering, walking, and learning my new regimen of 20 different medications before I was released on Friday, April 9,” says Miller.

She stays healthy today by taking all her medication, listening to her body and her new heart (even if it means slowing down), attending all her doctor appointments, continuing her low-sodium diet, and exercising.

“I want to be around for a long time, and so I have to make sure that whatever I put in or do to my body, it needs to be healthy choices so that this heart will beat for me. It’s an extremely respectful way of living… I wouldn’t change anything, and I’m so happy to be here today,” says Miller.