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Fletcher Hills mother goes from failing heart to 'Dancing Queen'

Seven years after Scripps doctors saved Darla's life by implanting a left ventricle assist device to keep her failing heart pumping, Darla still feels great.

SAN DIEGO — A Fletcher Hills mother is celebrating life and a gold medal. In this Zevely Zone, I met a woman who went from heart failure to dancing queen. 

After suffering a near death experience, people do all sorts of things. Some people find a new job, others climb a mountain, but all Darla Calvet wanted to do was dance. 

Pouring her heart out on the dance floor has entirely different meaning to Darla. 19 years ago, at the age of 39, her heart wasn't pumping enough blood to survive. She rushed to the emergency room. "Probably over the speed limit, probably driving about 80 miles an hour," said Darla.

Credit: Scripps Health

When other doctors told Darla there was no hope, she says that's all Dr. Tom Heywood from Scripps Health gave her. "I technically died twice, and he brought me back," said Darla. "She got so sick she had to be on a heart lung machine," said Dr. Heywood. 

A wife and mother with two daughters laid in his hands. "I had these poor children who were crying to me don't let our mother die and I said to myself I can't let her die," said Dr. Heywood. Darla didn't and after years on a heart transplant waiting list, Darla received a new heart. It happened on March 7th, 2015, her husband Pat's birthday. "He said that I stole his thunder when I took over his birthday with my heart-versary so there you go," said Darla. 

So, how does it feel to have a heart that works? "Amazing, it's a second chance at life and I just want to encourage everyone who is on this journey to know that your life can come back full circle," said Darla.  

Credit: CBS 8

To celebrate, Darla started ballroom dancing. "Every day she comes with a smile on her face, and she is incredibly positive," said dance instructor David Fan. They dance at Mary Murphy's Champion Ballroom Academy in Kearny Mesa. 

David says one challenge transplant recipients face is memory loss and a big part of dancing is remembering the steps. "Yes, she has to fight and fight and fight to make things stick like that and she did and and it went off brilliantly," said David. 

Together they entered the 2021 Transplant Games of America. They submitted a video of their dancing due to COVID restrictions and won.

Credit: CBS 8

When Darla won a gold medal, she could only think of one person to give it to. "Dr. Tom Heywood at Scripps because I credit Tom, my friend, as the one who saved my life," said Darla. 

After winning the Transplant Games of America Darla went to the hospital and hung the medal around Dr. Heywood's neck. "It's hanging on my wall. Sometimes when someone gives you something you just say thank you," said Dr. Heywood. "We went from near death to embracing life that's fantastic. It's a fairy tale, it's really a fairy tale." “He literally saved my life, so I wanted to share this achievement with him,” said Darla.

Credit: CBS 8

Dr. Heywood says the moment was a special one for him and brought into focus the importance of his work and how much his care means to patients like Darla for the rest of their lives. “Darla has been so strong and brave on this journey, and her gold medal validates everything that she and the entire heart team at Scripps have done to give her the chance to reach her dreams,” Dr. Heywood said.

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Seven years after Scripps Health doctors saved Darla's life by implanting a left ventricle assist device (LVAD) to keep her failing heart pumping, the Grossmont area resident has a new heart and still feels great.

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"Just keep your faith and keep believing that things are going to move forward, and they will," said Darla. This summer, when the 2022 Transplant Games of America come to San Diego, Darla, and David hope to repeat and go back-to-back with their championship cha cha. Dr. Darla Calvet has a PhD in education and plans on sharing her journey in a book titled "My Life in Stitches".    

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