Change of Heart: Abington High School senior is onstage again after undergoing a heart transplant

By Matt Schickling
Wire Staff Writer

No one will ever question that Becca Voltmer has heart, even if just a few months ago hers was functioning at less than 10 percent.

“I remember waking up one day and just crying because I was so happy to be alive,” she said during an Oct. 23 interview.

The 17-year-old senior at Abington High School was recalling the aftermath of several operations and a heart transplant at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that saved her life. Today, she’s at rehearsal for her school’s theater production, where a portion of the proceeds will go to the American Heart Association. Just a few months ago, she was undergoing emergency surgeries and hoping for a donor.

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But before all that, she seemed a perfectly healthy teenager.

The problems started last April: Voltmer couldn’t walk 20 steps without being winded. She was experiencing chest pains during minor physical activity and didn’t know why.

Her first diagnosis was dehydration. She would be given some fluids and be fine, no problem. But dehydration, it turns out, would have been a blessing.

It wasn’t long until she ended up back at the hospital.

“My stomach was bloated and the doctors took an X-ray and nothing was there,” she said. “They told me it was all in my head.”

But it wasn’t. Another trip to the doctor, then to a cardiologist confirmed that something was seriously wrong.

“You’re in heart failure, he told me,” Voltmer said. “You can’t pass go. You need to get right to CHOP.”

When she arrived there via ambulance, there were about 30 doctors waiting.

“They were dressed in yellow gowns and had gloves on and masks on because there was no diagnosis for what caused my heart failure yet,” she said.

She now knows it was myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that is usually caused by viral infection. Her immune system was attacking her heart.

“I thought. ‘I’ll probably only be here for a week or two,’” she said. “But the doctors knew it was really bad.”

The first order of business was to go on ECMO, a cardiac and respiratory life-support technique used when those organs are so damaged they cannot perform their function independently. She had cannulas, or tubes, stitched into her neck and groin to circulate her blood. She also had a breathing tube down her throat. At one point, one of the cannulas hemorrhaged and she bled significantly, and she has scars to prove it.

“I have flashbacks,” she said “But I don’t remember most of it.”

She underwent an open-heart procedure to implant Ventricular Assist Devices (VADs), or mechanical pumps that move blood from the lower chambers of the heart through the rest of the body.

Her hospital bed was surrounded with dozens of machines and tubes, blinking and beeping and keeping her alive.

“I was basically a robot,” she laughed.

Eventually, she was able to go home on the VADs, which she says “made me look like I was wearing two fanny packs.” But still had to return to CHOP twice a week. It wasn’t until exactly one month after going home, on July 28, that her family received the most important call they would ever get.

“They had a heart,” she said.

Immediately, her parents, Joan and Egon Voltmer, 15-year-old sister Paige and 9-year-old brother Egon were overjoyed. They went right to the hospital.

The transplant was successful, and 24 hours later, Becca woke up.

“I had more than 150 text messages. At least 50 were from my boyfriend,” she joked.

She was the fourth, and youngest, person in the world to survive the BIVAD treatment into a heart transplant. Her first major priority after recovery was to write a letter to the family of her donor. “I’m not going to let you down,” she wrote.

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And now, just three months later, she’s back at school and on pace to graduate. But one of the major setbacks for her was missing summer auditions for the school’s production of You Can’t Take It With You, a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy by George S. Kauffman and Moss Hart. The theme, that life is too short, resonates with Voltmer’s story.

Voltmer had starred in plays for the school in the past. She’s been acting since first grade. But, since she isn’t able to perform, she decided to help out as much as she can as a stage and costume crew member.

Kristen Caiazzo, an English and acting teacher who heads the theater program at the school, said she was “extremely upset” when she first heard about Voltmer’s condition.

“She’s always really been a bright spot in the program,” Caiazzo said.

So she came up with the idea of donating some of the ticket sales for the play to the American Heart Association in honor of Becca and placing donation buckets in the lobby of the auditorium for anyone who wants to donate further.

The play will run on Nov. 20, 21 and 22 in the Abington Senior High School auditorium.

As for Voltmer, she wants to continue to pursue acting, singing and music through to college, but she’s not sure where yet. That’s fine, though. She has plenty of time to figure that out.

“CHOP saved my life. Without them, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I thank God every day for keeping me alive.”