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New Heart Gives Patient a New Lease on Life

New Heart Gives Patient a New Lease on Life

By Mark Soroka, Staff Writer

Gary Yeager isn’t one to back down from a challenge, whether it’s an obstacle on the job or a setback with his health. Even though he was living with congestive heart failure for many years, there was no quit in Gary. He insisted on maintaining a relatively normal lifestyle—to the best of his ability. But shortly after he turned 46, Gary’s optimism began to fade. His pounding, fluttering heart was going haywire. Walking, getting out of bed, and even breathing had become a terrible ordeal. Gary’s health deteriorated so much that in August 2010, he felt it was time to put his affairs in order.

“I knew something was terribly wrong,” said Gary, now 47, who lives in Georgetown, Pa., a small, rural community located close to the West Virginia border. “I remember telling my wife where to find various things around the house, just in case something happened to me.

”A month later, Gary slipped into a coma. His heart and other organs began to shut down. It appeared as if Gary had finally run out of options—until an incredible turn of events and a nationally renowned heart transplant team brought him back from the brink of death.

As a child, Gary was diagnosed with acute cardiomyopathy—a disease that weakens the heart muscle and enlarges the heart. Gary eventually became well enough to work in construction and enjoy vigorous outdoor activities. He also got married and had a son.

But Gary’s world turned upside down when he turned 36. He became fatigued and out of breath, even after climbing a few stairs. When he started to experience a gurgling sensation in his chest, Gary went to see his doctor. He thought he had pneumonia or the flu. But the diagnosis was much worse: he had congestive heart failure. His heart was continuing to enlarge.

For the next 10 years, Gary made frequent trips to the hospital. He found some relief from medications and device therapy. But during a visit with Srinivas Murali, MD, Director, Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, and Medical Director, The Gerald McGinnis Cardiovascular Institute, Gary was told he would eventually need a heart transplant.

On Sept. 22, 2010, Gary returned home following an evaluation at AGH, but a few hours later his heart developed a life-threatening arrhythmia, and his defibrillator began to shock repeatedly. He was rushed back to the hospital in shock. This was now a full-scale emergency. Gary deteriorated so rapidly that doctors had to place him on a breathing machine. He was rapidly building up fluids and his kidneys went into failure. He was only being kept alive by heart assist devices.

Then, by a stroke of good fortune, a donor heart was found that same day. The next morning, Stephen Bailey, MD, and Robert Moraca, MD—two prominent heart transplant surgeons at AGH—successfully removed Gary’s diseased heart and replaced it with a healthy donor heart. The surgery was uncomplicated. When Gary regained consciousness a few days later, his wife told him the good news. His new heart would give him a second chance at life.

Like other patients adjusting to their new heart, Gary must follow a strict lifestyle. To prevent organ rejection, Gary has to take powerful immunosuppressive drugs, some of which cause bothersome side effects. He also has to take special precautions to avoid getting sick, such as avoiding crowds and not handling dirt without appropriate precautions. In addition, Gary has to make periodic follow-up visits to AGH, where doctors take biopsies of his transplanted heart tissue to check for rejection.

“I feel like a completely different person. I don’t know where I would be today without the wonderful care I received from my heart transplant team at AGH—from my surgeons and cardiologists and nurses to the staff who follow up to make sure I’m doing OK,” said Gary, who hopes to return to work soon. “I can’t say enough about this wonderful team. They treat me like a member of their own family.”