The doctor didn’t expect Sherry Vernam to survive. It was April 2, 1948, and Sherry’s gray hue was concerning, but there was no apparent cause.
Sherry’s parents took her home to Marcola, a small town outside of Eugene. Over the next few weeks, the infant made a number of trips north to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland.
Doctors were stumped. Sherry wasn’t expected to live out her first year.
Defying odds, she made it to a year but the prognosis wasn’t good. Doctors studied her cyanosis –– a bluish tinge from lack of circulation. She was susceptible to ear infections, colds and pneumonia.
She was tough. She survived into grade school but spent many days at home when infections threatened.
At 10, her parents took her to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis for an angiogram, then unavailable in Oregon. Finally a diagnosis.
Sherry had a hole in her ventricular wall.
Surgery in June 1960 brought another surprise. Doctors discovered her heart had no ventricular wall. She had a heart with three chambers instead of four and the pulmonary and aorta arteries were transposed. A Teflon band was placed around her pulmonary artery as a stopgap.
The 12-year-old returned to school and lived life as normally as she could. Sherry felt better after the surgery. Most of her blue tinge disappeared and she had more energy. Finally her life had a sense of normalcy for her.
“I was just who I was,” she said. “It was part of my life. Until I was 10, I wasn’t really aware of what was going on with me.”
She added that gender roles were more defined back then and girls staying home and coloring or playing with dolls wasn’t considered out of the ordinary. Although she still did farm chores indoors –– fixing lunches and cleaning house.
After high school graduation, she attended college for a year before marrying her husband, Zane Strickland. Before they married, she told him about her heart issues.
“She was pretty special,” he said with a laugh.
The couple enjoyed life on a farm near Eugene
“I rode horses and chased cows,” she said. “I just did life.”
Five years into the marriage, Sherry had a miscarriage and with doctors worried about the stress of pregnancy on her heart, the couple adopted two children.
She threw herself into motherhood with zest, volunteering and working at the school her children attended as often as possible, with annual visits to a cardiologist.
After their children graduated the couple moved into the home of Strickland’s grandparents in the Wallowa Valley in 1991. She worked full-time as a teacher’s aide.
In 1993, the Stricklands fostered a child for three months and her heart problems reappeared. Tests showed that her heart and valve had worn out. The couple tried living in Eugene again, thinking the lower elevation might make a difference.
Only a transplant could save Sherry. Although heart transplants were still rare and dangerous, she didn’t care..
“I’d spent my whole life with doctors,” Strickland said. “They were not scary to me, and I’d already had one open heart surgery. I did well with that.”
“It was for me,” Zane interjected. “I still ain’t sure if I was scared for her or me.”
While waiting, Sherry had to reside within an hour of OHSU. On April 1, 1994, she was placed on a waiting list for a donor heart and surprisingly received a call the following day. She was prepped for the surgery, and even had her chest opened in preparation for the new heart.
She awakened from anesthesia and noted she didn’t feel any different. Her doctor said that complications along the way had caused the donor heart to become unusable.
Sherry wasn’t upset because the procedure helped the surgeon find where her old Teflon band was located and allowed him to make allowances for artery length in the next heart.
Her Christian faith helped sustain her.
“God works in wondrous ways,” she said. “He’s always been in charge of my life whether I knew it or not.”
She went through successful transplant surgery three months later after an early-morning summons to OHSU. She spent a month in the hospital and almost immediately felt the difference.
“I had felt relatively healthy before, but after I got out of the hospital, I felt, ‘Woo, I know what healthy is now!’”
She returned to work Oct. 31 of that year.
The new heart didn’t come with physical limitations, but Sherry follows a very strict diet regimen and takes medication, including anti-rejection drugs, at specific times of the day.
“I have to have something that reminds me to take them,” she said. “If I don’t, I get busy and I forget.”
She has also found that transplanted hearts get stiff with age, which has resulted in congestive heart failure.
She has an interest in care for dementia and Alzheimer patients, and she offers regular caregivers a respite from their duties.
She has had a chance to thank everyone involved with her ordeal, but she’s never met the family of the donor of the heart that saved her life.
“I’ve never been able to contact them,” she said. “I sent letters right away to the Donate Life people, and they forward them, but I’ve never heard. Every once in a while, I wrote a note to let them know how appreciative I am of their gift.”
She has visited several county churches, thanking people for praying for her. At the Wallowa Christian Church, she told attendees that the hardest part was the thought that someone had died so she could live. Pastor Mel Byer interjected, “Twice!”
“How true, first Jesus and now this,” she said.
She also spoke at the Joseph Charter School and at both the Lions and Rotary Club. She is open to speaking at other venues.
“I do this to make donor awareness more prevalent,” she said. “I want people to think about it and consider it.”
Ultimately, Sherry credits God for her second chance at life.
“Faith in God and Jesus Christ has always been a part of me,” she said. “I could think ‘I would have done this (the heart troubles) differently,’ but that isn’t what was orchestrated for me. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t worried when I had transplant surgery –– I trusted this was God’s plan.”