Addressing a question about her daughter, Becky Carlson, and the mass of medical bills she soon will face, Nancy Carlson showed why her St. Charles family thrives on a prescription that doesn’t cost a thing.
“Oh, we’re going to mail those out in Christmas cards,” Nancy Carlson said wryly of the bills, chuckling in her delivery as her daughter followed suit.
Weeks removed from receiving her second heart transplant and two kidneys at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Becky Carlson, 31, can’t help the reflex. Laughter remains the best medicine through everything she has endured.
“My parents have always told me: ‘There’s other people that have it worse off than you,’ you know. There’s always someone,” Becky Carlson said. “And my illness, you can’t really see.”
Doctors diagnosed Becky Carlson with idiopathic, or spontaneous, cardiomyopathy at age 3 months. The heart condition affects the structure and function of the heart muscle, and often is accompanied by hypertrophy – enlarged organs or tissues created by larger cell sizes.
The same doctors told Nancy Carlson and her husband, Russell, that their daughter wouldn’t live past a year. When she did, doctors surmised she would need a heart transplant at 5. She made it to 15.
“If you don’t know me, I just keep kicking,” Becky Carlson said. “I’m like that ... Energizer Bunny.”
“She’s beat every odd they’ve thrown at her,” Nancy Carlson added.
Make no mistake, the circumstances have humbled and stirred the Carlsons, making them upset and emotional and even leery of laugh tracks at times.
In late 2016, during the event that triggered Becky Carlson’s October 2017 procedures, doctors told the family to summon any loved ones they wanted to be nearby, including Becky Carlson’s younger brother, Mitch, a United States Marine then stationed in Japan.
Becky Carlson’s heart had stopped beating for 45 minutes. What she thought was a bad stomachache on Thanksgiving night 2016 had proven to be far more severe. Her blood pressure already was low, and her heart rate kept dropping.
She was on a ventilator for about four days, and Nancy Carlson described the atmosphere as “just real bad.” Once Becky Carlson received a pacemaker and things started to grow more stable, the family gradually returned to its familiar approach.
“Some people think we’re, like, odd, but you know, that’s how we deal with it. Try to make other people laugh,” Nancy Carlson said. “Or I’ll make [Becky] laugh when she’s not feeling well. We try not to mope around about it. We just try to take life one day at a time, and we always have for 31 years.”
A picture of her first heart donor was close at hand during Becky Carlson’s most recent procedure. Becky Carlson thanks her doctors, her donors and their families at every opportunity.
Although her two biological kidneys remain in her body, Becky Carlson received the transplant as a proactive measure as her own organs weaken over time. The new kidneys are two fused together as one, a condition known as “horseshoe kidney” for the shape that is formed.
“So, I say it’s like my lucky charm,” Becky Carlson said. “A horseshoe.”
Her family – which includes youngest sibling Adam, a St. Charles East High School senior who plans to enlist in the Marines after graduation – augments any good fortune.
Becky Carlson relished time with a small gathering of loved ones during Thanksgiving at her grandfather’s house. She cannot yet be part of large crowds, however.
“I need to be extra careful,” she said. “I don’t have any immunities at all. So, everyone has to wash their hands when they come into the house, absolutely no sick people around me at all. Things like that. Just have to be extra careful.”
The Carlsons owed about $1.6 million in medical bills when Becky Carlson had her first heart transplant in 2002. This time, friends and family have contributed to a GoFundMe page, aiming to help the Carlsons as best they can. Nancy Carlson said her husband has missed significant time away from work without pay as the family cares for Becky Carlson unconditionally.
“We never wanted her to feel sorry for herself,” Nancy Carlson said.“We wanted her to live a life and do what she could do.”
A brief pause followed. Then Nancy Carlson delivered a good-hearted punchline:
“But now she needs to get married and move out.”
To learn more about the GoFundMe effort for Becky Carlson, visit www.gofundme.com/becky-carlson.