My transplant story starts by recognizing that I wouldn’t be here without the help of many people. A successful organ transplant takes a talented group of people from beginning to end. It starts with organizations like United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), Donate Life America and LifeNetHealth. It goes from there to a team of medical professionals who work tirelessly to get you started. Finally, you need a solid support network of family and friends. My wife Kim is a huge part of my support network. She holds my hand every day and I’m sure that I couldn’t have come this far without her support and encouragement.
Mostly, I want to thank organ donors and their families. Without them none of this would be possible. I honor, admire and appreciate the contributions organ donors and their loved ones make so that others may live. My dream is that one day everyone will see the benefits of organ transplantation and be willing to participate in the donor process.
My journey toward a heart transplant started many years ago when I was a young college student. I was in a doctor’s office one afternoon and learned that I had a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. I didn’t think much of it at first because it wasn’t slowing me down or impacting my life very much. The doctor gave me a few pills to take and some simple instructions about eating a healthy diet and living well. He also told me that this condition wasn’t going to go away and that it would get worse with time. He said that by the time I was 50 I would have to do something to address the situation. He couldn’t tell me what the treatment would be because technology was moving forward every day and there were many improvements in cardiac treatment on the horizon.
I went for many years without significant problems. My doctors monitored the situation and made occasional adjustments to my medications, and encouraged me to continue a healthy lifestyle. But I noticed that something was different. As time went on I couldn’t walk as far or as fast as the people around me. I got tired more easily than those people when we were doing the same things. As I approached the magic 50-year mark that I had been warned about as a college student so long ago, the difficulties became more noticeable. As my doctor had predicted, my heart was beginning to fail. My heart wasn’t pumping efficiently, and struggled to stay in rhythm. The treatments that started off pretty simple years ago became much more invasive and the number of pills increased significantly.
Daily activities that most people take for granted like walking to the mailbox, climbing a flight of stairs and pushing a grocery cart were now very challenging. I would often have to stop and gasp for air before I could complete a simple physical task. I can’t explain how demoralizing it is to go into the grocery store and need something that is located at the back of the store. Rather than the long, difficult walk, I would settle for something at the front of the store. That’s what my life had become. My weight had increased significantly because I was retaining fluid. This fluid was settling in my lungs and making it very difficult to breathe. My clothes didn’t fit. Everything was a struggle. During our last vacation together before my transplant, I couldn’t walk on the beach and hold Kim’s hand. I was crushed emotionally when I couldn’t do the things that I enjoyed in life.
Eventually my doctor told me that we had gone as far as we could go and that I needed to talk to a transplant specialist. After a lot of testing and evaluation, the cardiology team taking care of me put me on the transplant list. I talked to doctors from every specialty at the transplant center. They all had a common goal. They wanted to make sure that I was in the best physical, mental, and emotional state to receive this gift. They also wanted to be sure that I would take care of it. The bottom line is they wanted me to be successful and they were trying to figure out how they could help. These professionals, without a doubt, are some of the best in the business.
I waited five months for the call that changed my life. In the days immediately following the surgery I held the hand of the angel who called me that night. I will never forget her name or the sound of her voice. The ICU nurses taking care of me the day I woke up offered me a stethoscope and asked if I wanted to listen to my new heart. I cried…I knew that I had just received the perfect gift from someone who didn’t even know me. A gift that brought with it the possibility of a better life. I heard the sound of a heart beating strongly and in rhythm for the first time in my adult life. But at the same time, I knew that someone out there was missing someone special.
My story unfolds a little more every day. Physical tasks like climbing stairs and walking to the mailbox are no longer the challenge they were before the transplant. Kim and I often do things and comment that I could have never done this “before.” It feels so good. The changes and improvements to my quality of life are nothing short of amazing. I have returned to work and my co-workers still comment that I look and act more “alive” now than I did before the transplant.
Kim and I celebrated our anniversary while I was in the hospital recovering from the surgery. Imagine celebrating your anniversary wearing a hospital gown and hooked up to an IV pole! As we celebrated around a conference room table decorated for the occasion, we put together a “bucket list” of simple things that we wanted to share together with my new heart. That list included things like walking on the beach together and sitting in the back yard watching sunsets. I’m happy to share that we have been able to do those things and many others.
My donor’s gift has also touched many lives indirectly. In the past couple of years, the gift of a new heart has allowed me to see two daughters graduate from college. After that I got to dance with one of these ladies at her wedding. Before the transplant dancing would have been out of the question. I’ve also seen my son enlist in the U.S. Navy and complete specialized training. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without a new heart.
This gift makes it possible for me to participate again in activities that my family and I enjoy. I had to stop doing many of these things as my heart was failing because I simply didn’t have the strength or stamina. Before experiencing heart failure, I was an avid motorcyclist. I’m happy to share that I can do that again. I have taken a few short trips and hope to take many more. Before my transplant, Kim and I traveled to many different places. As my heart failed, we had to stop going to places we enjoyed. It’s hard to go on vacation when you can’t carry a suitcase to the car or lift a backpack with a few simple supplies for a day outing. We are starting to do more of those things again too. I still remember the first winter with my new heart. When the weather forecast included a chance of measurable snow I think I was more excited than the young kids next door. They hoped for the chance to miss school, but I just wanted a chance to shovel some snow simply because now I could.
As my life becomes more normal I’ve tried to use my experience to encourage others to consider organ donation and register to be organ donors. I think people underestimate the magnitude of the decision they are making when they agree to participate in the organ donor process. This single decision has the power to change people’s lives forever. Someone making this decision certainly changed my life. As I share my story with others, many ask if I know anything about where my new heart came from. All I can say is that I now have a healthy heart that came from a very generous and gracious family. Someday I hope to talk with my donor family to tell them how their loved one changed my life. I can’t imagine a finer tribute to someone you love than to realize that they touched so many lives in such a positive way with a single gift.
On behalf of all the people who’s lives have been changed by organ donation, I extend my sincerest Thank You to everyone who makes this work possible.