Breaking News
More () »

From heart transplant patient to vascular device engineer, Minnesota woman pays it forward

Mackenzie Tannhauser used her second chance at life to pursue a career helping others using STEM.

MINNEAPOLIS — Sept. 7 might not hold a lot of significance to the average person, but for Mackenzie Tannhauser, it marks a life-changing anniversary that she is forever grateful for.

It's also an anniversary that she celebrates every single day.

"That was the day that I got a second chance at life," Tannhauser said. "That is the day I received my heart transplant."

As she reflected on the 11th anniversary of that gift, Tannhauser shared her gratitude for the gift, and sacrifice, she received that day. But first she spoke about what led up to it.

Kent: "What was life like before that day?"

Tannhauser: "I needed a transplant because when I was 8 years old, I had an irregular heart rhythm, and I went through many medications and many surgeries, but my disease kept progressing as I got older. 

When I was 15 years old, I was eventually diagnosed with what was called dilated cardio-myopathy, which meant that the left side of my heart was swollen and unable to pump blood to the rest of my body. At its worst, my heart was functioning about 20% of normal."

Her transplant brought the return of normal heart function and the gift of a more normal life. She would go on to celebrate a senior prom, move away for college and realize a dream of traveling abroad.

But Tannhauser says she is also grateful for the time she spent waiting for that gift.

"I distinctly remember having a conversation with one of my cardiologists when I was a teenager and telling this cardiologist that I thought I wanted to be like them," she said. "I wanted to go to medical school and be a health care provider, and this cardiologist was like, 'I think that maybe you should look into biomedical engineering.' She felt like where I was coming from - the experience I had as a patient - would make a huge impact on medical devices."

She followed that advice. After graduating from Marquette, she pursued a career in biomedical engineering that led to to Abbott. She now travels to hospitals across the country as a field clinical specialist for the vascular division.

Tannhauser: "I work to support our clinical trials, on anything from imaging systems that help us get a better look at the inside of the heart, to stents that open up blockages in your vessels."

Erdahl: "What does it mean, as a transplant recipient, to be working on devices that are helping the heart?"

Tannhauser: "I think it's really meaningful to think about the experience I had as a transplant recipient, and also it makes me really passionate, and I like to share that passion with coworkers, and I like to share my story because I think that having this perspective will hopefully help us design better devices."

As someone who didn't originally see herself in a STEM career, she's also sharing her perspective and passion with the next generation.

"When I talk to young people, and try to educate them about what a STEM career looks like," she said, "one of my big points that I bring up is that I wasn't top of the class, and STEM isn't only for the smartest people in your class. I think there are so many opportunities for everybody to explore a career in STEM."

She's certainly grateful she followed that advice herself, even if she didn't know where it would lead.

"I think that 17-year-old me would have been really surprised, and hopefully very proud of, 28-year-old me, because at 17, I was just so focused on surviving," she said.

Tannhauser has never known who gave her her second chance at life, but she's never going to stop trying to make the most of their gift.

"It makes me emotional, but like, in a happy way because it really does remind me of how grateful I feel," she said. "A lot of what I'm doing is because of the experience that I've had and I wouldn't be here without that donor and without that donor's family."

In addition to her work promoting careers in STEM, Mackenzie says she takes every opportunity she can to speak out about the benefits of organ and tissue donation because she is a living example of all of the good that can come from them.

Watch more Breaking The News:

Watch all of the latest stories from Breaking The News in our YouTube playlist:

Before You Leave, Check This Out