Ashley Shepherd, 20, wears the 14-inch scar down the middle of her chest like a badge.
"Scars are but evidence of life, a scar means you survived whatever tried to hurt you," she says proudly.
Congestive heart failure. Gallbladder infections. A heart transplant. Too many hospital visits and too many close calls. She even coded during one surgery and spent a week on life support.
But now, even with all the battle scars, Shepherd is looking ahead, ready to get her life back after undergoing a heart transplant in December.
"Everything is going well," said Shepherd from her aunt and uncle's home in Milford where she's been recovering. "I've had a really good recovery. It's scary, but I'm lucky."
Scary and lucky.
It all started about two years ago. Shepherd volunteered to work on the night of her prom -- a busy Saturday night at the Noggin Room inside Stafford's Perry Hotel. When she arrived, she was fine. But that feeling soon gave way to exhaustion and light-headedness.
"I couldn't see the order tickets and kept walking out the door to get air. I had to help get through the busy rush, but I felt like I was coming down with something fast."
After her shift, she went home and got in bed. She had developed a cough, and during the night, realized the tissues she was using were full of blood she had coughed up.
She panicked and went to the emergency room.
"They thought I had pneumonia and sent me home with antibiotics. But it didn't clear up, so I went back two days later."
Doctors found that the antibiotics had cleared fluid around her heart, and a cardiologist was called in. Shepherd was told she wasn't going home. She had congestive heart failure at the age of 17.
"Heart issues run in my family and growing up I was tested regularly until I was 12," she said. "Everyone always said I was lucky enough not to have them."
"Doctors determined I have cardiomyopathy, which they believe is why I had congestive heart failure."
Cardiomyopathy is a weakness of the heart muscle. Because of this, Shepherd wasn't able to do much. She was frustrated because while she was so young, on the inside, she felt nothing like a 17-year-old.
"I looked my age, but I sure didn't feel it. I had no energy. I was short of breath all the time. And even though I was restricting my diet like I was supposed to, I was in the hospital every couple weeks."
In September of 2011, Shepherd recalled she went for about a month where she couldn't keep food down. She went to the hospital and begged health workers to perform an ultrasound. She knew something wasn't right.
"They found my gallbladder was infected and they brought me in for emergency surgery," Shepherd recalled. "That's when things got really scary."