The dream of a heart transplant becomes real on Christmas

My husband got a heart. On Christmas night no less.

It was late Christmas Eve when we got the call from a nurse, one of the LVAD coordinators we had been working with. (An LVAD is the left ventricular assist device that was circulating blood through my husband’s body while he waited for a heart. Read more about it here.) Our phone rang, but we didn’t recognize the last name when it showed up on caller ID and we didn’t answer. So instead the nurse paged his hospital-supplied pager. And then my husband shouted downstairs to me that it was the pager, he had responded and was waiting for the call back.

Sarah called again to tell him they had a heart for him, surgery was tentatively going to be at noon the next day and he should try to get to the hospital within the next hour or so to be prepped for surgery. That meant a lot of IVs, blood tests and no more food till after surgery.

That phone call found me downstairs trying to finish cleaning house and wrapping gifts. I’m not sure what my husband was doing because he was upstairs. But I was running the vacuum. I had, with the help of my West Coast sister, decorated two trees in the previous 24 hours. I had gotten up to finish most of our shopping at Macy’s at 4 a.m. Christmas Eve so I could squeeze it in before my 7:30 a.m. workout. I still had to wrap the gifts and was saving that for later that night. I had gone grocery shopping. We cooked and ate Christmas Eve dinner (I can’t remember what we ate or who cooked – I think my sister took care of it.)

When we got the news, I was in shock and disbelief. A heart? Christmas Eve night? Really? And my husband was stuck in a place where he couldn’t even believe that he was actually getting a heart, the heart he had been waiting for since February of last year.

Just three short weeks earlier he had left the hospital after doctors repaired a scary
hemorrhage in his stomach. He came close to death but fortunately, I was home when he passed out from lack of blood and was able to get him in a squad and to the hospital. It was a close call that nurses said he was lucky to survive.

But one thing this medical episode revealed after further testing was that the valve between the upper and lower chambers on the right side of his heart was leaking. There is no “portable right ventricular assist device.” Portable ones do not exist. My husband was already tethered to an LVAD. In most cases the right side of the heart, which doesn’t work as hard as the left, limps along for the ride. In a small percentage of patients, though, the right side can’t keep up. My husband’s was among the small percentage. So I was worried. And his doctor was more worried than he was letting on. Shortly after my husband was discharged, he had a right heart catheter to determine the condition of his heart, and after consultation with all the heart and vascular specialists at the hospital, my husband’s name was moved to the top of the transplant list. It was early in December.

So there we were, late Christmas Eve night, scurrying to get to the hospital and not quite believing that it was really happening. I called my son to let him know about current events while he was on his way home after fetching his other West Coast aunt from the airport. It was around 10:00 p.m.

My husband washed up before saying his goodbyes to everyone in case he didn’t come back after surgery. One by one. His stepson (my son). One sister-in-law. Then the other. And it was off to the hospital for my husband, his son (my stepson) and myself.

For a lot of reasons, the surgery wouldn’t happen for about 24 hours, so my stepson and I went home early Christmas morning. I returned to the hospital alone Christmas afternoon about 2:30. Nurses had already started to prep him for what was still an uncertain surgery time. But by about 4 nurses knew surgery would be at 10:30.

They prepped my husband, and the nurse who called us reminded him jokingly that when he woke up he would no longer have “his little friend” attached to him (the LVAD, which up to this point had kept him alive). It was a reminder that gave me chills. Later that night, a very humble surgeon talked to us about the necessity and risks of heart transplants. He recited his memorized lines slowly and carefully, shortly before my husband was wheeled to the OR. The doctor asked for God’s blessing and at that moment I was happy we had a surgeon who looked for strength from God and didn’t think he was God.

At about 10 Christmas night, my husband was wheeled into the operating room. While another surgeon went to recover the heart, my husband’s surgeon started open-heart surgery about 12:45 a.m. After my husband went under, he was attached to a heart machine to circulate his blood. The old, tired, sick heart came out along with the pump, which was disconnected from the power unit. And at 3 a.m., a new young, healthy heart was sewn into my husband’s chest.

I was trying to sleep in the lobby of the hospital; then I moved to the surgery lounge about 5:30 a.m., shortly after it opened. The surgeon came to get me about 2 hours later to let me know surgery had gone well. It was a good, strong heart, he said. The heart was from a 22-year-old male who was slightly larger than my husband. This was good because the heart wouldn’t have to work as hard. He discussed these and other details with me as we walked back to intensive care, where my husband slept for most of the day and into the night before he woke up from surgery.

And he says that even with all the tubes attached to him (including three coming out of his chest to drain fluid), in spite of all the pain from surgery, he woke up and felt better. Because instead of a humming machine that sounded like a beehive when you listened to it with Doppler, he had a real beating heart in his chest.

So this is the beginning of a new chapter for both of us. There is a lot to learn, lots of pills to take to prevent rejection, and lots of tests that go along with having a transplanted organ. But with God’s blessing he will live a long time, thanks to the generous donation of a good family, a talented hospital staff, and the good wishes and blessings of so many friends and followers.

There will be more posts to come of our experiences and what happens next. My husband is developing a new routine. He goes out from time to time. He has energy again. He’ll start physical therapy soon. And we both still find it hard to believe this has really happened.

But it did. It was a good Christmas.

6 responses to “The dream of a heart transplant becomes real on Christmas”

  1. Martha says:

    Wow! great true story–so happy for you both.

  2. Sandra Davis says:

    I am in tears. Happy tears. God bless you both and thank you so much for sharing this beautiful Christmas story.

  3. Mattie Bacon says:

    Julie, that was God telling you that all was going to be good!! God is great! All the time God is good!!! I am so glad for you all. Will keep the prayers going. I am going to print this out so Susie can read it too. Now I have to go get that birthday card for your dad!!

  4. Pamela Floyd says:

    To God be the Glory!! I am so happy for you and your husband!! May God continue to richly bless you and yours!

    • admin says:

      To all of you who responded, yes we have been blessed. Thank you for your good wishes and please, keep praying for us. This is only the beginning.

  5. Congratulations! I am happy for your husband and family. That is a tremendous gift.

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