Melissa Perry, whose heart transplant journey captured the spirit of an entire community, died early Saturday morning at a hospital in Kansas City, Mo., her family reported.
Perry, 35, received a heart transplant at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City on Dec. 31, 2016. She had just passed her first anniversary of the transplant. She was hospitalized over Christmas weekend to treat bacterial pneumonia in both lungs.
Over the past year, Perry had become an ambassador for organ donation, sharing her story with audiences, and a witness for what her family and minister called a deep, abiding faith in God.
Her daughter, Bryanna Conboy, a student at Paris High School, said that her mother’s upbeat attitude helped everyone around her.
"She helped is through problems," she said. "She always told us that we needed to trust God."
Perry attended the Just As I Am Cowboy Church, located just south of Paris. Her pastor, Steve Miller, said that Perry spent much of the last year wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the Bible.
Miller said that any story about Perry must include her commitment as a Christian.
"Because of Christ, her life changed. That is the important part of her story," he said. "She was an inspiration to our church…. She did forums, women’s conferences and events to talk about her heart and she always reached into the gospel. The biggest inspiration that she has been to our church that is that she is another miracle among many in the miracles at our church."
Friends paint a picture of a woman who made everyone around her feel better.
"Oh my gosh, she was such an inspiration to me and so many other people," said Dee Soffner, who met Perry about seven years ago. "She loved God so much. Her faith was great. She tried to see how the transplant helped others. She embodied hope, faith and love for everyone. You never saw her down or gloomy."
As word spread Saturday on social media of her passing, hundreds of people shared the same views of Perry.
"Your Mom will never really leave you; she will always be in your heart and thoughts and know she will be God’s special angel for you and your brothers," wrote Marcie Buckman to Bryanna on Facebook. "My heart is breaking for you. I am so glad you were given this last special year together. Please know she would want you to seek out happy days ahead. She will always be there smiling down on you and your brothers."
Said another post to Bryanna: "Your mother was a wonderful woman, always looked for the ‘good’ in things, always held her head high even in despair. The world is a lesser place without her, and heaven is better with her. I pray for you, your brothers, and the rest of your family. Your mother loved very deep, and I know she’s looking down on y’all from heaven. I was so sad when I found out the news seems like it was just yesterday your mother and I was hangout, and laughing. I will miss her deeply."
Perry’s battle with heart disease began with the birth of her now 12-year-old twin boys, Robert and Zackary Conboy. Following the birth of the twins, she experienced severe fatigue and shortness of breath. After about three months, she was diagnosed with postpartum cardiomyopathy, a rare condition that affects a small percentage of pregnant women.
According to doctors at Johns Hopkins University, most women recover within a few days to three months. A rare few do not recover. Perry was among that group.
For 11 years, her failing heart affected everything. She had trouble walking long distances, she had little stamina for her children, humid weather affected her ability to breathe.
In late December 2016, Perry took a bad turn in her struggle. Her left ventricular assist device (LVAD) failed, meaning she needed urgent medical attention. A life flight helicopter met her in the parking lot of the United States Department of Agriculture in Paris and flew her to St. Luke’s.
There, doctors decided to not to replace the LVAD, instead treating her for the disease, in hopes of finding a suitable heart.
An LVAD is a kind of mechanical heart pump. It is placed inside a person’s chest, where it helps the heart pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Unlike an artificial heart, the LVAD doesn’t replace the heart. It just helps it do its job. It is often used for a patient whose hearts are is too weak to effectively pump on its own or those who are waiting for a heart transplant.
On Dec. 31, 2016, after nine rough days in the hospital, at around 7 p.m., six nurses burst into her room and told her the good news: a heart had been located and had been approved for her, and the next morning, she would receive her new heart. The surgery took place on Jan. 1, 2017 – a new heart for a new year.
During the days after her surgery, Monroe County celebrated her new heart with hundreds of Facebook postings, and a friend sold T-shirts to help raise money for the family.
As she got stronger, Perry was able to participate more and more with her family, even swimming with her children over the summer, and according to Bryana, she even "rode the water slide" in the municipal pool in Moberly.
Perry also spent much of the last year speaking to groups about organ donation, and to church groups about her faith in God, and how that influenced everything she did in life.
In June, she was the keynote speaker for a meeting of 1,100 women who belonged to the statewide P.E.O. Sisterhood at the Embassy Suites in St. Charles.
"I did not think about organ transplants before I needed my new heart," she said after the meeting. "Now, I want to make certain people are aware of the need."
Buckman, a member of the Paris P.E.O. chapter said Perry’s story inspired women at the meeting.
"Women came up to her after her talk, stopped her and thanked her in the hallways," she said. "Melissa touched their hearts."
Buckman said that one women attending the meeting was moved by Perry’s story because of heart disease in her own family. The woman’s son is a candidate for a heart transplant, but the family has been fearful of the surgery. Wilson’s story convinced her of the need for the heart transplant.
"She was in tears," Buckman said. "She felt God had sent her to the convention to see Melissa."
Perry said the meeting the woman was overwhelming.
"I am so happy my story helped," she said. "Another woman, about 60 or so, came up to me to tell me that she had a heart transplant last October…we hugged."
She ended her talk to the P.E.O. meeting with a with a Bible verse: 2 Corinthians 9:12: "(New International Version) This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God."
On Sunday, Bryanna wrote a tribute to her mother on Facebook: "Mom, I love you. How happy your always were. How determined you were. How outgoing you were. I will never forget you. Love you so much. Fly high."
Visitation for Perry will be Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the First Baptist Church in Paris. Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. on Thursday at the First Baptist Church, and there will be a dinner at the Just As I Am Cowboy Church following graveside services.