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Profiles in Persistence: Tiffany Dunn ’21

For nearly three years, Tiffany Dunn ’21 pursued her studies at USM while coping with heart failure. 

A photo of USM student Tiffany Dunn

She attended classes when walking even a few yards left her breathing hard and exhausted. When her health took a bad turn, which it often did, she’d complete assignments from a hospital bed. When her heart function plummeted, she went to school tethered to a 6-pound battery that ran the implanted mechanical pump keeping her alive. 

But this week, the 33-year-old is celebrating two milestones. She will graduate Saturday with her Bachelor of Arts in Social Work. And she’ll do so with a new heart. 

She expects Commencement will feel “surreal.”

“It’s really hard to believe after all these years that I’ve actually accomplished that,” she said.”I think it’s going to take a while to hit me, but I think it’s going to feel like a weight has been lifted.”

Dunn had been healthy until July 2018, when she was 34 weeks pregnant with her daughter. That’s when she noticed she was short of breath. 

“It was to the point where I couldn’t get from my car to the front door without taking a break,” she said. 

Tests showed peripartum cardiomyopathy, a rare condition in which a woman’s heart muscles weaken during the last weeks of pregnancy or shortly after. Doctors performed an emergency C-section and delivered Dunn’s daughter, Isla, that day. 

“I was in a really bad state at that point,” Dunn said. “They thought something catastrophic could happen to me and/or the baby if they didn’t get her out immediately.”

The newborn was whisked to the hospital’s NICU while Dunn was admitted to another part of the hospital. Too weak to travel far, Dunn had to be wheeled to the NICU to visit her newborn. 

Some women recover from peripartum cardiomyopathy over time and with the help of medication. Dunn’s condition grew worse. 

Her heart operated at a fraction of its normal function and it couldn’t keep her blood moving. 

In March 2019, she developed blood clots and had a stroke. In May that year, doctors implanted a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, to help her heart pump. 

The device saved Dunn’s life, but it was not meant to be a long-term solution for her and it was not an easy thing to live with. Because the pump had to be powered at all times, Dunn was tethered to a 6-pound battery pack that she had to carry with her everywhere. And the pump’s alarm was prone to going off, emergency or not. 

 “There were times when we actually had in-person classes when it alarmed in the middle of class and I had to go out and address the alarm,” Dunn said. “I had to tell my teachers each semester, ‘I have this device and if it alarms and I’m incapacitated, basically call 911.’”

USM’s Disability Services Center helped her secure accommodations, like the ability to turn in work late if she was hospitalized. And she tried to reduce the stress and fatigue on her body by enrolling in classes that were all held on the same day, so she only had to focus on school that one day a week.  

But Dunn never seriously considered dropping out or even lightening her load. She continued to take a full slate of classes, despite heart failure, stroke, LVAD and having a new baby at home. 

“It was an accomplishment I always wanted,” she said of college. “I had started this before the heart failure issue came up and I knew that I didn’t want to stop. I figured even if I have to take a break, even if I’m hospitalized and I have to take time off, I’ll still just keep going and keep plugging away at it. I figured the time will pass anyway; I can either do something productive with it or I can not. If I had waited, I would be two years behind now. But now I’m going to actually have my degree.” 

Dunn was placed on the heart transplant list last September. On March 12 she got a call that a heart was available. Dunn and her husband, Mike, immediately drove to Boston, where she was admitted to Tufts Medical Center and prepped for surgery — only to learn that doctors had found cancerous lesions in another one of the donor’s organs. The transplant was canceled. 

“I was really devastated,” Dunn said. “They said, ‘Yeah, we’ll keep you for the night and then you go home to wait again.”

She didn’t have to wait long. On March 30, Dunn got a call about another heart. This time there were no problems. 

After an eight-hour surgery, Dunn got her new heart. 

A photo of USM student Tiffany Dunn in a hospital

Dunn is all smiles as she recovers from the eight-hour heart transplant operation performed at Tufts Medical Center in Boston on March 30. 

She spent two weeks in the hospital, but only took the first week off. The second week she set her laptop on her hospital tray table and went to work on her capstone project and other assignments. She missed just two class sessions. 

“I wanted to make sure I could finish on time,” she said. 

Finish on time she did. Dunn will graduate Saturday, fewer than six weeks after her transplant. 

A photo of USM student Tiffany Dunn

Dunn, who will receive a Bachelor's in Social Work from USM, poses for an official Commencement photo at the University's socially distanced stage walk for 2021 graduates in Hannaford Hall on Tuesday, May 4. 

“I don’t know if I could put it into words, honestly. Tiffany is phenomenal,” said Natallie Gentles-Gibbs, assistant professor in the School of Social Work. “One of her peers said it best when she said she’s inspiring.”

While Dunn will graduate this spring, she won’t go far. She starts taking courses at USM for her master’s degree this summer. 

Dunn had planned to become a school social worker, drawn to the career by the guidance counselors she knew when she worked as a guidance secretary at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland. Now she’s considering another possible path: hospital social worker specializing in kids. 

“Before becoming a patient myself, I didn’t realize that social workers are really in the medical field, but I was assigned a social worker who really helped me and became close with me,” she said. “I think with my experience, knowing what it’s like, it would be good to have someone like that as a social worker in that environment that can say, ‘I actually do know what it’s like to be in the hospital, to be away from your family, and have to deal with these heavy things.’”