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Del Mar woman marks first anniversary of best Christmas gift ever: a new heart and kidney

Kidney and heart transplant patient Shana Pereira, 41, at her home in the Del Mar area.
Kidney and heart transplant patient Shana Pereira, 41, poses for photos and celebrates her life at her home in the Del Mar area on Wednesday, Dec. 22.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Shana Pereira had been on a transplant waiting list for years when she finally got the life-saving news on Dec. 25, 2020

For many years, ardent film fan Shana Pereira said she felt like she was living in her own movie, but it wasn’t a comedy.

Because the Del Mar woman spent years on a kidney and heart transplant list — enduring daily 11-hour dialysis sessions while she waited — Pereira said she felt like a character in the film “Final Destination,” where the grim reaper gradually hunts down several people living on borrowed time.

But these days, the 41-year-old Pereira — who on Christmas day will celebrate the one-year anniversary of her successful double-organ transplant surgery — is living in a much happier cinematic universe.

“Before it was like I’d been living in a ‘Final Destination’ movie. But ever since then, I’ve been in a Hallmark (Channel) Christmas movie,” she said. “I feel gratitude for the fact that I woke up and gratitude that I’m able to breathe.”

And like many movie scripts, Pereira’s story had a last-minute twist. On the day of her surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, her damaged heart stopped and nurses had to manually keep it beating with cardio-pulmonary resuscitation until her new donor heart arrived by helicopter a couple hours later.

“That’s when the Christmas miracle really became apparent,” she said. “If I’d waited any longer for the transplant, I would have been at home instead of at the hospital and I would have died.”

Pereira was born and raised in Australia and moved to the U.S. for work in 2003. She spent many years in Los Angeles and then moved in October 2018 to San Diego, where she works as the chief operating officer for an advertising firm.

Kidney and heart transplant patient Shana Pereira, 41, at her home in the Del Mar area.
Kidney and heart transplant patient Shana Pereira, 41, at her home in the Del Mar area.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On Christmas Eve 2015, Pereira’s kidneys failed and the following year she was put on the kidney transplant list. In 2017, she began dialysis treatment. In early 2019, she received word that a schoolteacher in Virginia had offered to donate one of her kidneys to Pereira, but the elimination of elective surgeries during the pandemic forced the surgery to be postponed.

While undergoing tests for the kidney transplant in 2020, Pereira underwent a heart stress test and doctors found that two of her coronary arteries were blocked and a third was partially blocked. Eventually, her most damaged kidney was removed and she was put on the waiting list for a heart transplant, as well.

With so many setbacks, Pereira said she felt she was going to die, but she credited her heart surgeon, Dr. Dael Geft of Cedars-Sinai, with helping her see the big picture.

“He said, ‘do you know how many people are walking around L.A. with heart and kidney transplant doing marathons?’ He said the minute he met me he knew I was meant to do big things in the world. He said: ‘you have a special energy and my job is too keep you alive. I have a game plan and your job is to go and do it.’”

Cedars-Sinai performs the most adult transplants of any hospital in the United States. In the year ended June 30, it transplanted a total of 561 organs. This year through Nov. 30, the transplant center team successfully completed 106 heart transplants, 249 kidney transplants and 25 heart/kidney transplants. According to the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS), a nonprofit that manages the U.S. transplant system, more than 40,000 patients received transplanted organs during 2021, which is a national record.

Pereira said she doesn’t know anything about her double-organ donor, other than she was a 29-year-old woman whose death on Christmas day 2020 saved Pereira’s life. She credits her donor, her surgical team and the power of collective prayer for pulling her through.

“I had thousands of people praying for me of all religions, practices and nationalities,” she said. “It meant so much to me because in COVID nobody could be at the hospital with me.”

Within four days of the surgery, Pereira said she was walking the hospital corridors. She went home on Jan. 9, 2021, and was driving and doing 45 minutes on a stationary bike by mid-February. While her physical recovery was swift, Pereira said her emotional recovery has been more challenging. She has been sharing what she calls her “360-degree experience” of healing online at instagram.com/shana_pereira.

“My mental state caught up with me in July about the gravity of what had happened. I thought I’d be celebrating off my head this year but I feel really sad,” she said. “I feel like I had a twin and we’re the same, but she died and I’m different now. I’m trying to figure out what I like and don’t like now and what I want to do with my free time. Anything is really possible.”

Besides enjoying watching more movies, Pereira said she plans to use her time and her Instagram page to promote the importance of organ donation and transplant. According to the federal Health Resources & Services Administration’s organ donor network, there are now 107,015 people in the U.S. on the national transplant waiting list. About 8,000 people on the list die each year because an organ does not become available in time.

“This is an important message for me, especially at this time of year,” she said. “Don’t lose hope. A lot of people are lonely at Christmas and that’s when depression sets in. But thanks to organ transplant, my life turned into a Christmas miracle movie.”


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