PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Brandy Sweeney’s days are spent working, chauffeuring her three kids around for extracurricular activities and raising awareness for causes through volunteer work. While that may seem like nothing out of the ordinary, none of it would be possible if not for the heart transplant Sweeney, who is from Point Pleasant, W.Va., received in 2015 at just 38 years old.
Sweeney’s story has recently been brought to light on a higher level as she is one of Ryan Shazier’s “50 Phenoms.”
Shazier, who played for The Ohio State Buckeyes in college, went on to be a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers but an injury in 2017 left him with a spinal contusion and the possibility of never walking again.
Since then, Shazier has been on the road to a remarkable recovery, from walking again to dancing at his wedding in 2019.
While working on his own recovery, Shazier has partnered with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) to highlight 50 people with stories of inspiration and recovery.
Shazier is choosing 50 people from UPMC—50 being his jersey number—who have not let their struggle slow them down.
Sweeney did not know about the program until she received the call that she was chosen.
“I had no idea until the marketing people had called me,” Sweeney said. “They said, ‘Hey, Ryan read your story, and he’s chosen you as one of his 50 Phenoms.’ I was like, holy cow that’s awesome. I mean, I don’t see myself as anything other than just mom Brandy.”
She said she almost did not believe it.
“At first I was like, is this for real? I didn’t realize it was only going to be the 50 people and then I thought about it and was like, all these people and I was one of them,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney was pregnant with her third child in 2014 when she woke up having a difficult time breathing. After being seen by her doctor she was diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy, which is heart failure due to pregnancy.
“I woke up, and I was just so completely swollen,” Sweeney said during her 50 Phenom interview. “They came into the room and my husband and I were sitting there, and they said, ‘You’re in congestive heart failure.’ And then they kind of walked out. And I looked at my husband and I just started bawling (because) I’m like, ‘What the heck? I am just pregnant; I am not in congestive heart failure and dying.’”
Sweeney delivered a healthy daughter five weeks early and a few days later was sent to UPMC in Pittsburgh.
After a month in UPMC Sweeney received a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) in hopes to strengthen her heart.
“They were hoping that that was going to give my heart the opportunity to heal, but after a couple of months they had checked and then the LVAD became a bridge to transplant,” Sweeney said. “I was on the list for a total of 39 days.”
With family at home looking after her two boys and newborn daughter, Sweeney said it was a time of faith and difficult decisions.
“That was my husband’s hardest decision, (going) to Pittsburgh with his dying wife or stay with our newborn baby,” Sweeney said during her interview with Shazier. “He did opt to go with me because we knew that she was in good hands, and we had family that would go and see my daughter while she was in the NICU.”
Through it all, Sweeney says faith and love got her through it.
“I was big on faith. I truly believed that everything was going to be okay because I gave it all to God and I knew He was going to take care of me,” Sweeney said. “I would say definitely consider becoming an organ donor because had it not been for my donor, my three kids would not have a mother here today.
“Through the whole thing I felt so much, like I said in that video; like love was one of the biggest things I felt through the whole thing,” she said. “My community showed me love, my family and then my donor…didn’t have a clue that he was going to save my life someday, but he showed love for a stranger. A selfless act by deciding to become an organ donor.”
Along with being featured, Sweeney was interviewed personally by Shazier and received a signed jersey after hanging out with him.
“He was a super nice, down-to-earth guy,” Sweeney said. “My middle kid, Bryson, thinks they are like best friends now because they sat down and played video games.”
Sweeney was the fourth phenom to be featured.
“It’s kind of cool because they truly have picked people, you know, all different things have happened to them and they have had to overcome many different things,” Sweeney said.
While the overall situation is not a position anyone wants to find themselves in, Sweeney is quick to say that she would not change a thing.
“I don’t think ‘why me?’ It’s ‘why not me?’ I truly believe God chose me for a reason to go through this,” Sweeney said. “Whether it’s just to promote organ donation and maybe potentially save other’s lives because someone has registered to become a donor. It could be because I do sometimes stop in the hospital on the heart transplant floor and I talk to some of the patients who have just gone through it, if it’s just to show them hope. I don’t know the exact reason, but I think there was an actual reason that I was chosen to go through this.”
While Sweeney does not have any specific projects in the works, she plans to continue her promotion of organ donor awareness.
“I don’t stress the small stuff as much and I appreciate the small stuff more,” she said.
Sweeney’s 50 Phenom feature, along with four others can be found at https://pages.upmc.com/50-phenoms.
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Brittany Hively is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing and graduate of Marshall University, with a bachelor’s degree in public relations and journalism. She is currently working toward her MBA, also at Marshall. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.