Shelby Rab was a sophomore from Nacogdoches studying hospitality when her life took a turn for the worse. Rab was a happy college student who could not wait to finish college and start her lifelong dream of opening a restaurant.
However, she was diagnosed with what doctors thought was pneumonia. For treatment, the doctors started her on fluids, but her body was not reacting to it. Rab was getting worse. When she got back home to try to sleep, she started coughing up blood. Her boyfriend’s mother, Kim Schaus, told her she needed to go to the hospital, but Rab refused, claiming there was nothing wrong with her, but Schaus insisted on going to the hospital. When she got to the emergency room, Rab said she felt she started going insane but recalls no memory of it.
“My boyfriend’s mom said at one point I was throwing my clothes,” Rab said. “I got so hot, then I got so cold and was turning blue because I was so cold. I wouldn’t let [the nurses] give me blankets because I thought I was hot.”
At this point, everyone in the room was expecting the worst to happen. Schaus called her son, Zachary Nortch. He raced over to the hospital from Longview. The doctors were quickly trying to save Rab and decided to do an echocardiogram on her heart. The doctors originally were treating her for sepsis; but when that was not working, they started worrying about her heart.
The echocardiogram showed Rab’s heart was twice the size of a normal heart and was not pumping effectively. Doctors flew her by Memorial Hermann Life Flight to the Texas Medical Center in Houston immediately. Rab was not expected to make the flight. But, when she got to Houston, the doctors needed to make a quick decision on what to do.
“By the time Shelby made it to us, she was in cardiogenic shock, and her heart could not pump enough blood to meet her body’s needs,” Dr. Sriram Nathan, a cardiovascular disease specialist, said. “We put her on a temporary support device before ultimately deciding she would need a more permanent solution.”
The day before Thanksgiving in 2017, the doctors hooked her up to a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD. According to WebMD, a LVAD “is a mechanical pump that is implanted inside a person’s chest to help a weakened heart pump blood.”
“You can see my scars,” Rab said. “It was a wire that pumped my heart for me and carried it outside of my body. I showered twice a week, got disgusting and had to wrap myself up in plastic because if it got wet it could get an infection. I couldn’t get the batteries wet because it could short out, but I wouldn’t have been electrocuted. But, if it shorted out, it would stop the pump in my heart. They call the LVAD a ‘bridge to transplant.’”
After six months of trying to see if Rab’s heart would heal, the doctors decided to place her on the transplant list. The wait was hard for Rab because she could not attend school, but instead of taking some time off, she wanted to do online classes.
Rab had a goal to graduate on time and wasn’t going to let her heart condition stop her. Rab said her professors were very kind and understanding. One of her hospitality professors, Assistant Professor Dr. Mary Olle, really helped her through this tough time and motivated her to continue with school.
“She was dedicated and determined to finish her degree,” Olle said.
“She was not going to let her condition keep her from pursuing her career, limit her from finishing college or let her down in life. She didn’t really have limitations from her medical condition because she persevered. She would lay in bed working on her homework and studying. It did not limit her in any way.”
On Sept. 10, 2018, Rab’s life changed forever. She received a phone call from doctors that there was a new heart waiting for her in Houston. Rab, Nortch and Schaus dropped what they were doing and rushed to Houston.
Rab was excited for a new heart but was also sad for the family of the donor. Rab is enjoying her life with her new heart. After she received her heart, Rab could not wait to return to college in person.
Rab will walk the stage for graduation on Friday, Dec. 13, and she is counting down the days. She said she is not going to let anything get in the way of her pursuing her dreams. She hopes that her story can inspire others to always keep fighting through every hardship in life.
“If I can do it, you can do it,” Rab said. “We all have different experiences in life, but persevere through it.”