Rod picture in rehab

Rod Carew is adapting well to his new heart, kidney. (Photo courtesy of Carew family.)

LOS ANGELES – In baseball terms, Hall of Famer Rod Carew has rounded third and is heading for home in his recovery from a heart and kidney transplant.

Carew said his doctors are thrilled with his progress. He recently passed the 1-month milestone without any signs of rejection and is regaining the strength sapped by the grueling operation. He’s spent the last week in a rehabilitation center and expects to be released as soon as this weekend.

“I’m doing great,” Carew told American Heart Association News in his first interview since the Dec. 16 operation. “I just want to get the news out to people that they need to get their hearts checked. So many people hear that but don’t pay attention. I want them to really listen to what I’m saying.”

Carew emphasized his gratitude to the family of his organ donor. Both organs came from a young man whose selfless decision helped save several lives, Carew said, who is eager to personally thank the family.

“He’s my blood brother,” Carew said. “I appreciate everything that he and his family have done for me and others.”

Donor families usually must wait a year before asking the transplant center about meeting the recipient. The publicity surrounding this case could bring them together sooner if the family reaches out to the Carews.

“I hope they do,” said Carew’s wife, Rhonda. “I would love for his parents to hear their son’s heart beating inside Rod.”

There’s one more powerful aspect of this donor-recipient connection. The man’s age was 29, which is especially symbolic because that’s the number Carew wore on his jersey throughout his career and was the inspiration for the name “Heart of 29,” the campaign he launched last year with the AHA to boost awareness and prevention of heart disease.

“When the surgeon told me the donor’s age, I looked at him and thought, `Are you serious?!’” Rhonda said. “That was so fascinating to me. It was another big moment. I believe there are no such thing as coincidences.”

Heart of 29 logo

Carew is 71, which is on the high end of the age range for a double-transplant recipient. However, he was deemed a good candidate because his overall health was so good.

“Nutritionally, physically and emotionally, he was ready for this,” said Dr. Dan Meyer, who implanted the device that kept Carew alive for more than a year until the transplant and who has remained in touch with Carew and his doctors. “This kind of double transplant is a lot to go through. At 71, it takes a strong, special person to get through this, but we thought that would be Rod.”

Carew is among the greatest hitters of all-time, a first-ballot selection to the Hall of Fame and a seven-time American League batting champion. He won that award so often that last year the AL batting title was named in his honor.

His medical journey began in September 2015, just a few months after he’d passed a physical.

Moments after teeing off on the first hole at a golf course, Carew suffered a heart attack. During a procedure to open the blockage, he went into cardiac arrest. It took two jolts from a defibrillator to revive him.

Carew was soon diagnosed with extreme heart failure. The muscle was no longer strong enough to effectively pump blood to the rest of his body. He could’ve used a new heart then, but doctors – including Meyer – determined that the better option was implanting a device to take over the pumping function. So Carew received a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD.

Rod Carew (second from left) with fellow coaches LaTroy Hawkins, Eddie Guardado and Torii Hunter at Minnesota Twins spring training in February 2016. (Photo courtesy of Twins.)

While the LVAD was bulky to wear and it required daily maintenance, it also enabled Carew to live a relatively normal life.

By late summer – after returning from his annual trek to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York – complications related to the LVAD made a transplant go from a matter of convenience to necessity. One of his kidneys was weakened, too, so doctors sought a new one to improve his odds of a full recovery.

He spent about a month on the transplant waiting list before receiving the call on Dec. 14. He arrived at the hospital that evening, but the surgery didn’t begin until the early hours of Dec. 16.

“Rod described that wait as both really, really exciting and really, really scary,” Rhonda said.

The operation took 13 hours. Carew spent about 10 days in intensive care, then began working to regain his strength. He left the hospital Jan. 12.

He’s eager to return to his home two hours away in Orange County. He’ll have some limitations, particularly limiting how many people he’s around. With all the immunosuppression medicines he’s taking, he is especially vulnerable to an infection, which could lead to rejection.

The Carews are awaiting word on when they can start traveling. He’s already looking forward to his annual visit to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame induction weekend, July 28-31.

The Carews also have begun discussing international travel plans for 2018. A trip to Italy was scuttled by his initial heart problems, and he’s long talked about wanting to visit Cuba and other islands where he has roots, such as Trinidad.

“We’re looking forward to getting our life back on track,” Rhonda said. “I think we’re really going to have the attitude of not waiting for things to line up before you commit – to just go for it – because we’ve learned that tomorrow is never promised. Don’t miss an opportunity to do something because you just don’t know what’s in store for you.”

Rod with his wife Rhonda

Rod and Rhonda Carew at a Twins fan event last January. The black vest Carew is wearing contained the batteries and controller for his LVAD, items he wore through the 14 months that machine helped keep him alive.