Lanette Lewis with her 1 1⁄2-year-old daughter Savannah Rose Kendall preparing for Christmas at home in Park Forest. Lewis missed being with her daughter for hers first Christmas after undergoing a heart transplant last year.

Lanette Lewis with her 1 1⁄2-year-old daughter Savannah Rose Kendall preparing for Christmas at home in Park Forest. Lewis missed being with her daughter for hers first Christmas after undergoing a heart transplant last year.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

A Christmas gift of life for south suburban heart-transplant recipient Lanette Lewis

Last year, she couldn’t spend the holiday with her 6-month-old daughter because the Park Forest mom had just gotten a new heart. What a difference a year makes.

SHARE A Christmas gift of life for south suburban heart-transplant recipient Lanette Lewis
You could look at Lanette Lewis and see a woman who’s been plagued with bad luck. But don’t tell her that.

As a toddler, she was diagnosed with cancer. Her family thought she’d beaten it. Then, when she was in college, the disease invaded one of her kidneys. Doctors cut away half the kidney to save her life.

Then, months after giving birth to her first child last year, she was told her heart was failing. A year ago, Lewis was at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, awaiting a heart transplant.

On Christmas Day, you’ll hear no griping at her family’s dinner table in Park Forest, no laments for how celebrations were before the world was hit with the coronavirus pandemic.

“When this first happened, my friends were, like, ‘Oh, my God, we can’t take being quarantined,’” Lewis, 32, says of the pandemic. “I’m, like, ‘Can you guys imagine being hospitalized for months on end and not being able to have your family and friends come and visit you?’ It kind of put it in perspective.”

After she gave birth in May 2019 to daughter Savannah Rose, Lewis was diagnosed with postpartum cardiomyopathy. It’s a rare failure of the heart that’s seen in women in the late stages of pregnancy or shortly after giving birth. Many recover. Lewis was told she would not.

For years, her mother Rosemary Irons-Lewis, 64, has had to deal with the fear that the cancer would return or that her youngest daughter might succumb to some other sickness. Doctors told her many years ago that the best way to help her daughter was to stay strong and hopeful.

“Did I have moments when I cried and bawled?” she says. “I did. But they were always when I was alone.”

Lanette Lewis (right) with her mother Rosemary Irons-Lewis and her 1 1⁄2-old daughter Savannah Rose Kendall at their home in Park Forest. This will be the first Christmas together for the three of them.

Lanette Lewis (right) with her mother Rosemary Irons-Lewis and her 1 1⁄2-old daughter Savannah Rose Kendall at their home in Park Forest. This will be the first Christmas together for the three of them.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

She says it never crossed her mind that she, not her daughter, might have to raise Savannah Rose.

“I wanted to encourage Lanette that you have something to live for now,” the mother says.

Surgeons perform about 40 heart transplants a year at Northwestern. They always hope for a “perfect outcome,” says Dr. Amit Pawale, Lewis’s transplant surgeon.

In this case, Pawale says, “There are three lives depending on it: herself, mother and daughter.”

And, after an operation that took eight hours, he says they got it.

Lewis awoke last Christmas Eve with a new heart.

Because of hospital restrictions on children visiting during flu season, she couldn’t spend Christmas with her daughter. She had to settle for a tiny Christmas tree perched on her hospital room windowsill and watching her baby girl on a screen as she tore the paper from her presents in Park Forest.

A year later, though, she’s doing well. She’s young — that helps. The median survival for heart-transplant patients is 13 years, according to Pawale.

“If you’re younger, healthier otherwise, your chances are better,” he says.

Lewis, who works documenting on-the-job injuries for a variety of companies and businesses across the nation, is planning to enroll in nursing school next fall. She would like to become a cardiac nuse.

She and her mother have been preparing for the Christmas they couldn’t have last year. And forget about the usual baked ham or turkey.

“This year, I want something completely different,” Lewis says. “I want a true celebration meal. I want some nice, healthy T-bone steak, some shrimp, a baked potato.”

She has told her mother she feels well enough to make the Christmas feast herself.

Irons-Lewis is happy to sit back and let her.

“I’m going to relax,” she says. “I’m really exhausted.”

There will be a prayer for the family who made Lewis’s gift possible, even though she doesn’t know who to thank. The donor family hasn’t reached out to say they’d be open to contact with Lewis.

Still, she says, “Every day, I wake up, and I make sure I thank them.”

Christmas decorations adorn Lanette Lewis’s Park Forest home.

Christmas decorations adorn Lanette Lewis’s Park Forest home.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

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