By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
For Greg Flatt, the best holiday gift is to still be alive two years after developing a rare heart condition and getting a new heart.
“I’m only alive today because of the shape I was in then,” said Greg, 47, who lives in Arlington, Virginia.
In early 2015, he was running about 25 miles and cycling about 40 miles a week. His training data showed that his exercise pace and distance was off and he had trouble breathing. Within two weeks, he went from being an endurance athlete to nearly dying.
Doctors at Inova Fairfax Hospital diagnosed him with giant-cell myocarditis — the most lethal form of an enlarged heart. The causes of GCM are unknown.
It’s common to misdiagnosis the condition because symptoms vary from simple fatigue to sudden death. More than four in every 10 cases aren’t detected until a heart transplant or death.
After several weeks in a coma, Greg woke to find two biventricular assist devices, or BiVADs, implanted inside his torso, temporarily performing his heart’s pumping functions until a heart donor was found. Greg put his name on two transplant lists — at Inova and John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
The call came from John Hopkins on Dec. 29, 2015, that a heart was ready. The 10-hour surgery began the next morning.
“We all cried,” recalled Greg, choking up. “I gave each of my boys (Ridge, then 9, and Fenton, then 6) a hug. We knew it could be the last one.”
The survival rate of adult heart transplant patients is 85 percent after one year and 73 percent at five years, according to the Registry of the International Society of Heart and Lung Transplantation. The median survival is 11 years, but some patients live nearly twice as long.
“My expectation is to exceed that average,” Greg said. “I’ve beaten grim odds … and I’ll beat the odds on transplant survival too. I have a now-8-year-old that I have to help become an adult.”
Certainly, his recovery from both surgeries has been above average. Within a few months of his BiVAD surgery, Greg was practicing taekwondo, coaching soccer and back working in risk and compliance analysis and management for a large consulting firm.
Since the transplant, he’s taken up tennis and is back to cycling and running, though at a slower pace. He ranked 136th out of nearly 1,000 bikers in the Hotter’N Hell 50-miler in Texas in August and finished a 124-mile bike ride in Canada in October. He also volunteers at the local American Heart Association, speaking at fundraisers and participating in its annual Heart Walk.
For his wife Sherry, it was a different experience. Everything happened so fast that she operated on auto-pilot. While Greg was in a coma, she made the decision to implant the BiVADs and started the transplant paperwork.
“The person is going through the crisis, but the caregiver goes through a similar devastating event,” Sherry said. “The first episode was dramatic because I witnessed him almost die.”
One of the hardest adjustments has been to integrate Greg back into the household.
“My wife did everything for a long time,” he said. “Reinstituting the division of labor as I recover has been challenging.”
As an early holiday gift, the family just got a border collie and a cat.
“How do we get back to a normal life?” Sherry said. “Part of my job is to make him not think about it so much. We’re getting there.”
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