Connie Polina's heart was dying. But she didn't know that.
The first time the pain came, you could understand. Connie was at her brother's funeral. He had been shot dead, on March 7, 1993. It was a painful, stressful time.
"I got a really sharp pain in my chest," she says. "But because I was the oldest, I had to be strong. The pain went away, and I didn't pay any more attention to it."
Life went on. Spring became summer, and summer became fall. Then it was Christmas. "I got another one on Dec. 24. I was at my mother-in-law's making tamales, but I ignored it again."
The next day, Christmas, she had another sharp pain. This one she could not ignore. "I didn't know what was happening. We went to the hospital in Toppenish, but they didn't know either. I don't smoke or drink. I exercise; I took my boys walking every day."
Women having a heart attack often do not present the same symptoms as men. But Connie was eventually diagnosed and on her way to Yakima for open-heart surgery -- on Dec. 27, 1993, with Dr. Duane Monick of the Yakima Heart Center. Shortly thereafter doctors determined she also needed a defibrillator to monitor and help regulate irregular life-threatening heart rhythms. For that surgery, in April 1994, she was off to Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.
Her heart, however, was permanently damaged, so Dr. Monick, her cardiologist, sent her to see Dr. Daniel Fishbein at the University of Washington. Over the next six years he tried to help Connie using medication and another surgical procedure, but in January 2000 her name was added to the list of those waiting for a new heart – a transplant.
And here's where her story gets really exciting:
"When they put you on the list they give you a pager so they can reach you when there's a heart. Six months later I got the page. We had four hours to get to the UW, and we're three hours away. I had been telling my husband all that time, 'Make sure the car is gassed up. Make sure the car is running OK, but on the way over it overheated at the summit on I-90. We had to pull over.
"I called the UW and they said, 'You have to call 911!' I kept telling my husband, 'This heart is mine! This heart is mine, we have to get there!' The ambulance came and at some point they put me in a helicopter.
"When I got to the UW everybody already knew my story. They called me the Queen of Hearts! I even got there before my heart, which was from a woman in Yakima."
On June 20, 2000, Connie Polina, who had just turned 40 years old, had her heart replaced thanks to a donation from a stranger.
"It was meant to be," she says, her eyes full of tears.
Boy, was it. Connie, whose formal name is Consuelo, found out that her donor was also named Consuelo. Also, Connie has three children. So did her donor.
"What I prayed for was for God to just give me the strength to see my kids graduate. I've seen all three graduate, and my boys are now 38, 36 and 30. And I have three grandkids and one on the way.
"When I see my grandkids I think of Consuelo. I think of my donor. Her youngest was 11 months old when she died."
Connie and Robert have been married almost 38 years now. Connie, who worked all her life except for the years when her heart didn't allow it, is back at it, working part time as a secretary at Roy Farms.
"I feel really good now," she says, her eyes bright. "Dr. Monick retired and now his son, Dr. Erik Monick is my cardiologist. I see him once a year at the Yakima Heart Center, and twice a year I go to the UW. That's it.
"When I was having those chest pains it just felt like anxiety. Now I'm always telling my sisters and my daughters-in-law to get checkups.
"I've got stubborn sisters, but I keep telling them."