"It was torture," she says. "I always had hope, but I was always scared, terrified. You have trouble breathing, you lose weight, you lose everything."
For the six months before her transplant, she was bedridden, mostly in the hospital.
"I did some paintings, and I'm not a painter," she says. "I did latch hook rugs, watched TV — no medical shows."
During her months of hospital stay, her husband, Tim, then a trainer and now president of Florida's Gulfstream Park, slept each night in a chair in her room. When he had business elsewhere, her brother Nick did the same.
In an article in Sports Illustrated, Tim was quoted as saying, "There were times when you put her to bed, and you just weren't sure she would wake up the next day."
She says she hated being a burden and often wanted it just to end but hung on. "I did not want my children to be without a mother," she says.
Ritvo's story came to light when she saddled Mucho Macho Man for the 2011 Kentucky Derby. He finished third, then completed the Triple Crown pursuit with a sixth at the Preakness and seventh at the Belmont. Now the 5-year-old, campaigned by Dean and Patti Reeves, has $2,440,410 in earnings and has been in the money 17 of his 21 starts.
Mucho Macho Man is 5 years old but not a gelding.
"The Reeves like the racing," Ritvo says. "Everything they do in racing, they do the right way."
Ritvo never tires of telling her story. It isn't ego. It is because it might help the next person with heart disease. At the 2011 Kentucky Derby, where she was the 14th woman in 136 years to saddle a starter, officials allowed the local organ donor organization to have a booth on the grounds. Ritvo visited often, and hopes for the same at Santa Anita.
That might also help her tell the story of another survivor, Mucho Macho Man. Five months before her transplant, he left the womb and entered the world lifeless. Those attending poked at him, massaged him, shook him, but got no signs of life, not even a heartbeat.
Then, after several minutes, he just got up and galloped away. No feeble first steps. Just off and running.
Same as the woman, post-transplant, who trains him now.