The Only Child Born to a Heart Transplant Patient Finds a Home

updated 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

More than anything else in life—more even, it seems, than life itself—Betsy Sneith wanted to be a mother. Few women could have had better reason to remain childless. Her health had long been precarious, and on Feb. 24, 1980 she had received a heart transplant. Nevertheless, on Sept. 16, 1984, against the advice of her doctors, the 23-year-old woman got her wish, giving birth to a healthy baby girl. As the first woman in history to undergo the rigors of childbirth after having received a heart transplant, Betsy became an instant celebrity, making appearances on TV shows like Good Morning America, where she was portrayed as the ultimate, independent, self-sacrificing mother.

But when the TV lights went off, a different truth emerged. Though Betsy tried to put her child before herself, she never quite succeeded at motherhood. Unwed and struggling financially, she seemed overwhelmed by her responsibilities. Almost as soon as Sierra Jamieson Sneith was born, her mother began leaving her with friends so that she could spend nights drinking at a local bar. She was already at risk from skimping on essential heart medication during her pregnancy, and her health and spirit failed rapidly. On February 20, Betsy Sneith was rushed to the University of California San Diego Medical Center, where she soon died of heart failure. "Her one goal in life was to have a baby," says friend Chuck Okrusch, "and after that she had no goal."

Sierra is now in the care of Betsy's parents, Robert and Nada Sneith, who won interim custody of her last month. A San Diego juvenile court judge ruled that they could keep her at home in Plum, Pa.—the Pittsburgh suburb where Betsy grew up—while they wade through the red tape of legal adoption. "It will be a shock to have a baby around again," says Nada, 43, who has three other children, ages 22, 19 and 14. "But we're very pleased." Nevertheless, they and Betsy's friends are left to wonder why the independent, self-willed woman had seemingly given up on life in her last months.

After all, Betsy always was determined. "When she decided to do something, she just went ahead and did it," recalls her mother. "She didn't let anyone or anything stop her." She was only 17 when she learned in June 1978 that a large, noncancerous tumor was growing on her heart. Doctors said she would live less than two years without a heart transplant. Although stunned by the medical verdict, Betsy resolved to live a "normal life" while she waited for an available heart. In February 1980 she made medical history by getting out of bed and walking, just two days after receiving the heart of a 23-year-old auto-accident victim.

Within a year after the operation, Betsy was taking community college classes while working as a cashier at a gas station in Pittsburgh. She never got her degree, quitting school after about two years. In 1983 she was a candidate for a Plum council seat but dropped out of the race before the general election. She became a computer operator at the University of Pittsburgh, and she also began an affair with a married man, according to friends. Then, for reasons that remain unclear, she lost her job and in January 1984 moved to San Diego in search of a healthier climate and better employment.

Shortly after she arrived on the West Coast, Betsy learned she was pregnant. Her doctors told her not to risk having the child. The drugs she was taking to stop her immune system from rejecting her transplant might threaten the fetus' health, and the strain of labor could endanger her own. Though she had no religious or moral objections to abortion, Betsy stubbornly determined to carry her baby.

Betsy described the pregnancy as the worst period of her life. Stuck on welfare with no permanent place to live, she was depressed much of the time. Claudia Beddoes, a friend with whom Betsy lived for three months after moving to California, says Betsy ate a lot of junk food and smoked a pack of cigarettes a day throughout her nine months. Although she was supposed to take some dozen pills a day, she began skipping her regular dosages for fear of harming her baby. She said nothing to her parents about her pregnancy until eight weeks before the birth. Because the baby was in a breech position, she had to be delivered by cesarean section, but otherwise, 7-pound 1-ounce Sierra emerged without complications.

After Sierra's birth, Betsy went downhill. "She was dependable. She worked out all right," says Okrusch, co-owner of the Casa de Oro, a dusky neighborhood tavern where Betsy bartended weekends. "But after she had Sierra, she started to drink a lot. She was at the bar almost every night." Betsy would often leave Sierra in the care of Gary Dale, 31, a bartender, and his wife. "I knew Betsy was out partying sometimes when I was taking care of Sierra," says Dale, "but I never resented her for it. Betsy had a lot of problems. Anyway, a young woman needs to get out of the house."

Gary and Betsy's other friends agree, however, that she had changed "into a totally different person. She had radical mood changes. She said things I don't think she meant. She was short with people." Betsy didn't tell Sierra's father about the baby until several months after she was born, but last Christmas she visited home, partly in hope of reestablishing contact. "We knew she was having some problems, but we had no idea it was as bad as it was," says her own father, Robert Sneith, 52, a machine operator. "Everyone commented on how good she looked. If ever there was a time when we thought she was out of the woods, it was then."

Betsy told friends that she would like to see Sierra's father again this summer, but when she returned to San Diego, she seemed to know her time was running out. "Betsy was not a huggy, touchy person," says her friend Bonnie Helm. But 10 days before Betsy died, Bonnie adds, "She gave me a big hug, which really shocked me. She said, 'Bonnie, I love you.' I think she was telling me goodbye."

On February 19 Betsy was evicted from her apartment for failure to pay rent. Loading her things into a borrowed truck, she drove with Sierra to her one refuge: the Casa de Oro. At the bar she ate a hot dog, drank a 7-Up and started to cry. Suiko Gutzmer, the bar's co-owner, offered a place to stay. That night she felt ill, and the next morning Gutzmer called an ambulance. Betsy's heart failed a few hours later. Autopsy results showed her body had rejected the transplanted heart. She also had a benign brain tumor the size of a golf ball, which doctors say may have affected her emotions and reasoning.

Betsy's friends held a potluck wake for her at the Casa de Oro, where a sign still hangs over the bar advertising the amount of money donated to date by local residents for Betsy's baby: "Sierra Sneith Fund: $2,340." The locals won't soon forget either mother or daughter. "Everybody in this town loves that baby," says Dale. "Sierra is a little fighter, just like her mother."

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