A "heart for the holidays" is just a pleasant phrase to most people.
But it means much more to Jim and Patrice Baranowski and their children, Mia, 8, and Christopher, 6, of Chalk Hill in Fayette County.
This holiday season, the family is remembering the organ donor who gave Patrice her heart.
The 45-year-old nurse underwent transplant surgery June 25 in UPMC Presbyterian hospital. And though she always had a soft spot for Christmas, decorating trees in each room of the house, this was the first Christmas that Patrice celebrated with a whole heart.
"I hope I get to meet my donor's family someday," she said. "I know my donor died of a brain aneurysm. When I found out that, I cried. I used to take care of people like that when I was a neuro nurse."
The slim, energetic woman, one of 10 siblings, was born with a rare congenital condition, Uhl's anomaly, in which half the heart fails to fully develop. Though she lived with the condition for decades, by last spring she was struggling for breath. Her heart had begun to give out.
"She had a very unusual type of heart problem where the right side of her heart didn't work well," said transplant surgeon Dr. Jay K. Bhama. "It is one of the most rare reasons a transplant is needed and the only case this year requiring the surgery at UPMC."
Patrice has been composing a letter she would like to send to the donor's family. Her transplant coordinator at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center told Patrice the center would forward the letter, minus identifying information, after the six-month anniversary of the operation. It would direct any response to Patrice.
"I'm really curious about this other person. What was she like? I'm a lot calmer than I used to be, and I love to cook now. I don't know where this peace came from, but it's here," she said.
Surgeons in the United States perform about 2,200 heart transplants a year. They are a last resort for people with advanced heart failure.
Jim Baranowski, a retired state trooper who became a collision reconstruction specialist, works from home but travels across the state to testify in court cases. He always considered his wife to be a living miracle.
Despite her condition, she was active — swimming in the lake near their mountaintop home, skiing, ferrying the children to activities, working at hospitals in Connellsville and Morgantown, W.Va. She refinished the stone-faced fireplace in their family room and manages a menagerie of dogs, cats, rabbits and a guinea pig.
Two years ago, she began to feel tired much of the time.
"I thought it was just the kids and trying to keep up working nights. Then I switched to days, but nothing worked."
By April, her cardiologist confirmed what she knew: Her heart was deteriorating rapidly.
Patrice began meticulously labeling and dating photographs in albums she keeps in an upstairs bookcase.
"I just felt I was going to die. I had to get things in order," she said.
She and Jim quickly planned a family trip to Disney World. After their return, things began to spin out of control.
"I couldn't breathe; I couldn't be a parent to my kids," Patrice said.
Jim Baranowski watched helplessly, six times, as medical helicopters flew his wife from their home on the mountain ridge south of Uniontown to UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland.
"She has frequent-flier miles on LifeFlight," he joked. "You don't realize how blessed you are to get up every morning, to have your children and your wife, until something like this happens."
Then came the conferences with medical personnel. Although she needed a heart, Patrice's condition made her a high-risk transplant candidate. The couple took pictures of their children to help persuade Dr. Dennis McNamara, who coordinates the heart transplant program, to give her a chance.
In June, McNamara placed her on UPMC's heart transplant waiting list. Four days later, Patrice was whisked into surgery.
"It's a little on the unusual side to get a transplant that quickly but sometimes patients with particular blood types may end up getting donors faster," Bhama said.
The wait for a heart typically varies from days to months. Jim Baranowski insisted something bigger was at work for his wife.
"All over the country, people were praying for Patrice. God was looking out for us," he said.
Even so, his wife's recovery was punctuated with complications.
"I bled out after surgery," she said.
Then, she recalled, her lungs, unaccustomed to working in tandem with a healthy heart, filled with fluid repeatedly.
Although doctors attach no guarantees to any transplant, the Baranowskis are hopeful about their future. UPMC, which started its heart transplant program in 1980, has survivors approaching 30-year anniversaries.
"She's here — that's what counts," Jim said. "But for the transplant, we would have lost her before July 4."
It wasn't until Patrice returned home that she realized just how worried her children had been.
"Mia looked at me sitting on the couch, with tubes coming out of me, and said, 'Mommy, I'm so glad you're not in heaven. I'm glad you're here.' "
Three-quarters of the way through a physical therapy regimen designed to restore her strength, Patrice is weighing options. She keeps a stack of information on organ donation, which she shares with others as a way to give something back.
"She's a Christmas miracle," her husband said. "If even one more person signs a donor card because of her, that's something."