Psychology graduate and heart transplant patient Angela Farrell eyes graduate school, research to aid chronically ill children

by | Dec 11, 2017

Farrell's interested in researching post-traumatic stress on children with chronic conditions who undergo significant medical procedures.
Angela Farrell

Angela Farrell’s time at UMSL was interrupted by heart transplant surgery during the first semester of her sophomore year. Three years later, she’s healthy and set to graduate with a degree in psychology. (Photo by August Jennewein)

A sense of pride will surely fill each parent who watches their child walk across the stage at the Mark Twain Building to accept their diploma during commencement ceremonies this weekend at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

But it’s bound to be amplified for Monica Farrell and her husband, Robert, when their daughter, Angela Farrell, receives her bachelor’s degree in psychology alongside other graduates from the College of Arts and Sciences Saturday afternoon.

Doctors couldn’t promise when Angela was born that she’d live long enough to reach this milestone.

Her parents saw her endure three open-heart surgeries before she turned 4, and more recently, there were nights early in her sophomore year when she went to sleep unsure if she’d wake up the next morning.

So getting the opportunity to put on her cap and gown is going to signify more than just academic achievement.

“It’s just going to be amazing,” Monica Farrell said. “We didn’t know what the future would hold for her, and she showed everyone what she is capable of.”

Angela Farrell was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a birth defect in which the left side of a baby’s heart does not develop correctly, affecting normal blood flow.

She has vague memories of blowing bubbles with her mother in her hospital room at age 3, but she can’t really recall any of the details that led her there. She’d been undergoing the last of the three surgeries – the Fontan procedure – which redirected blood flow from the right atrium to her pulmonary arteries.

It’s a testament to their success that Farrell grew up not thinking too much about her heart.

It wasn’t something that really limited her.

“Other than being tired more often, like in gym class and stuff like that,” she said.

Monica Farrell – who’s worked at UMSL for more than 30 years and now serves as the manager of Undergraduate Advising in the College of Business Administration – always made a point to alert friends’ parents to her daughter’s condition when she went over for sleepovers. But even that seemed to be out of an abundance of caution.

Angela Farrell doesn’t remember her condition causing her any problems until about seventh grade, when she started developing extra veins in her heart and lungs that would decrease the oxygen level in her blood. But those and subsequent developments were managed easily enough with catheterizations.

Only in the second semester of Farrell’s freshman year at UMSL did issues with her heart start to reside more often in the front of her mind.

She began experiencing minor chest pains and feeling abnormally tired, and those sensations would ignite panic attacks that set her heart racing and exacerbated the problems.

Farrell made several visits to the hospital and her cardiologist in hopes of figuring out exactly what was going on. She also started exercising more, figuring getting in better shape would help the situation.

She was aware that at some point she might require a transplant, but she still believed that time wouldn’t come until she was in her 30s or even 40s.

The following summer, not long before the beginning of her sophomore year, Farrell was still dealing with complications. Her feet and ankles were swelling, and one day she found herself visiting her doctor while coping with piercing stomach pain.

It turned out her liver had become enlarged and that she was experiencing heart failure.

“That’s when I kind of finally was like, ‘I’m not going to just go back home and pretend it’s just like a small thing. I want to see my cardiologist. We need to do something,’” Farrell said.

The initial plan was to try another catheterization during the first week of school, but her cardiologist stopped the procedure short and determined her condition had deteriorated enough that she needed a transplant.

About a week later, after undergoing a series of tests and receiving heart-failure medication, Farrell’s name was put on a transplant list.

But that act hardly diminished her or her parents’ anxiety, especially as they watched her hospitalized more than once.

“She was really struggling,” Monica Farrell said.

Angela Farrell had been told she might wait up to a year for a heart to become available. In the meantime, she moved to an entirely online course schedule because she didn’t have the stamina to trek across campus from the Delta Zeta sorority house to get to class.

But even online courses proved a struggle because of how fatigued her body became.

“There were nights when I went to sleep, and I wasn’t 100 percent sure if I would wake up the next morning,” she said. “That was how I felt.”

Luckily, her wait ended after 16 long days.

The call to alert Farrell that a heart had been found came to her parents’ house around 2 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2014. Her father answered and passed the phone to her mother.

Monica Farrell didn’t have much time to process all the emotions the news set off because she had to track down Angela, who was asleep at the Delta Zeta house.

Fortunately, she woke up after only two or three missed calls, and her mother didn’t have to get the UMSL police involved to get into the sorority house.

Both Farrell’s parents and her older brother, Nicholas, drove to UMSL to pick her up and drive her to the hospital for surgery that same day.

She woke up confused two days after the transplant and had to begin to retrain her body to do some of the most basic things.

“I had an oxygen tube, and for a while I had trouble talking,” Angela Farrell said. “That was probably the worst because people would be talking to me and I couldn’t get my point across.”

She added: “I had to retrain my legs to walk and relearn to eat and write just because my muscles were kind of atrophied.”

Farrell spent 16 days in the hospital and still faced months of rehab when she left.

“I was scared because it was cold season,” Monica Farrell said, “and her immune system had been so suppressed.”

But Angela Farrell was determined to get healthy enough to resume school in time for the spring semester, and she managed to make it happen.

Farrell’s academic direction has shifted a bit since her transplant.

She’d already been planning to major in psychology, a decision she’d all but made when she was still an underclassman at Parkway North High School.

Professor Jennifer Siciliani still recalls how enthusiastic she was about it when she first met her at a UMSL Day event when she was about 15.

“I just thought it was so fascinating, the idea of how people develop their personality and especially from childhood, just how all the experiences you have in your life sort of create who you are,” Farrell said. “I think I kind of related to that because of all the things that I’d been through that have made me who I am.”

It was only during her recovery, after she got deeper into her major, that Farrell decided she’d like to pursue it further and obtain an advanced degree.

“I’ve discovered that I really like the science aspect of it,” she said, “and there’s so many questions I have that I would like to answer.”

One topic in particular she’d like to explore is the post-traumatic stress children have when they grow up with chronic conditions and undergo significant medical procedures. Another is how siblings are affected by seeing their brothers or sisters cope with serious medical ailments.

Farrell, who’s completing a minor in child advocacy and trauma studies, is currently in the process of applying to graduate programs. She hopes to begin working toward a master’s degree next fall with the intention of one day earning a PhD.

In the meantime, she’s been volunteering at St. Mary’s Hospital and recently interviewed for a position as a patient safety assistant at Children’s Hospital.

She believes her story can provide comfort and hope to others she might encounter in a clinical setting.

“I’m a person that knows, not necessarily exactly, but very much what they are going through themselves,” she said. “I think for parents, just actually just seeing me healthy and doing what I’m doing and going through school and of course now graduating from school, it gives them hope for their kids.”

Growing up, Farrell never spent much time imagining or planning her future beyond college.

“It’s not like I thought I was going to die before I got there or anything,” she said. “But there was so much uncertainty there that it was just something I didn’t even think about. I focused more on what was happening at the time.”

But things have continued to go well for her since her transplant.

The results of her biopsy in October, three years after surgery, came back clean, so she won’t have to have another now for three more years.

She has enough energy that she regularly bypasses elevators during her volunteer shifts at the hospital in favor of taking the stairs, something she would have never done before.

And she’s glad to be on the cusp of beginning the next chapter in her life.

There have been opportunities – including a conversation she had with Siciliani about graduate school earlier this semester – to reflect on all she’s been through to get to this point.

“When I first filled out my graduation application and really noticed that I was at the end, every time I thought about it, I had to fight back tears,” she said. “I was just so excited and proud of myself that I’m actually here, graduating from college. Like it is happening.”

Monica Farrell has reserved a room in St. Charles where, after Saturday’s ceremony, friends and family – all the people who’ve watched Farrell tackle the many obstacles that were put in front of her – will gather to celebrate that too.

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