Donna Ashlock, the teen-ager who received a dead friend’s heart when her own heart failed, died in her sleep at home Tuesday while waiting for a second heart transplant.
The girl, who would have been 18 on April 1, died unexpectedly at about noon in this San Joaquin Valley town, said Jim Cullen, a spokesman for Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center in San Francisco, where her transplant was performed.
She had received the heart of 15-year-old Felix Garza Jr. after he died in January, 1986. Her system began rejecting the heart recently. She had been on the waiting list for a new heart since last month.
Donna’s case received international attention when it was reported that Felix had told his mother that if he should die, he wanted to leave his heart to Donna. The two were high school classmates.
Felix, the son of farm laborers, had been suffering from blackouts and headaches when he talked with his parents about donating his heart. He died suddenly after a blood vessel burst in his brain.
“I hope that what Peno (Felix) did shows how people can help each other,” Donna said in a statement 12 days after the transplant surgery. “I was surprised when dad told me about Peno and what he had done for me. I felt very sad, but thankful for what he did.”
“Her death today comes as a severe shock,” said Dr. Andrew Fryer, her pediatric cardiologist in San Francisco.
“Donna was seen by us last week and was in pretty good shape,” Fryer said at a news conference.
He added that her condition recently was “very stable” and described the girl as being cheerful and in good spirits.
The transplant was a success until last July, when she suffered periods of what doctors called “acute rejection.” Doctors treated the problem with steroids, but her condition worsened, and on Jan. 13, she was put on a waiting list for a new heart.
Donna’s chances would have been “excellent” with another transplant but donors are few, and the teen-ager’s small size and heightened sensitivity caused by blood transfusions made it hard to find an appropriate organ, Fryer said.
Pacific Presbyterian spokeswoman Nancy Millhouse said Tuesday that “we’re very saddened” by Donna’s death. “There are many people at this hospital who have gotten close to her over the years. She turned to the hospital as a place to have friends and get out of the limelight.”