Heart Failure, Heart Transplant

A Life-Saving Heart Transplant, a Life-Changing Experience

Meet Derek Fitzgerald. At only 37 years old, Derek received a heart transplant that saved his life. After that day, Derek made a promise to himself, and to the donor he would never meet. He would be his best self. He would strive to make himself better. And he wouldn't take one second of his good health for granted.

“About ten years ago, I wasn't feeling well so I went to the doctor. After a series of tests, they found a large grapefruit-sized tumor in my stomach.”

At 30, Derek was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After the tumor was surgically removed, Derek began chemotherapy. A few months after his chemotherapy ended, he began to have trouble walking uphill and breathing was difficult.

“Chemotherapy saved my life. But unfortunately, it killed my heart.”

Derek wound up in the emergency room again and again, until an echocardiogram finally revealed that he had dilated cardiomyopathy – a condition that reduces the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently. His ejection fractions – the level at which the heart pumps oxygenated blood through the body – were at 18%. A healthy person’s ejection fractions are at 50 or 60%.

As bad as his condition was, Derek didn’t meet the requirements for a heart transplant, which mandates an ejection fraction of 17% or lower. So the doctors put Derek on medication, and ultimately they put in a pacemaker.

“For six years I lived with heart failure. I often felt like I was in the twelfth round of a heavy-weight fight.”

Fighting for His Life, a Strong Team on His Side

Eventually, Derek’s health and heart deteriorated to the point where he qualified for a heart transplant. He chose Penn Medicine, because he wasn’t about to settle for anything less than the best care. Derek’s Penn Medicine Transplant Team was led by Dr. Mariell Jessup.

“I told Derek, up to this point, with your poorly performing heart, you've had the luxury of having all these other organs that were functioning well and supporting your heart. But one day -- one day very soon -- those organs will no longer be able to sustain your poorly performing heart. And when that happens, your health is going to be like falling off the edge of a cliff. But don't worry. When that happens, we'll be here to catch you.’"

Shortly after being put on the heart transplant list, Derek collapsed in the exam room during an appointment with his cardiologist. He was immediately taken to Penn Medicine, and waited for a new heart.

“Friends and family, doctors and nurses, would come in and check on me, but I could barely tell that they were there. I was in bad shape.”

Then, the news came: a heart for Derek had been found. His Penn Medicine Transplant Team sprang into action immediately. Derek was rushed into the OR, and when he woke up after the surgery, he had a new heart.

Penn Medicine's Heart Transplant Program, When End-Stage Heart Failure Becomes a New Beginning

“The first thing I felt was my heartbeat. I had been sick for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like. It was an overwhelming experience. My family was celebrating, but I knew my donor’s family was going through a tragic loss. I was grateful beyond words and determined to find a way to give back.”

And so a transformation began for Derek, from the inside out. It started with physical therapy, where he walked, then jogged, then ran. He felt good, so he kept pushing himself to go a little faster, a little longer. “For a few seconds, I would get a glimpse of a runner's high. In those moments, memories of what it felt like to be healthy would flood my mind. And I knew that all I wanted to do was get strong again.”

From a Heart Transplant to an Ironman® Triathlon, an Amazing Journey

One week after his heart transplant, Derek started training. One year later, he became a triathlete. In the year following his surgery, Derek participated in 17 endurance events, including several half-marathons and the full Philadelphia Marathon. The next year, Derek became an Ironman® -- finishing a grueling 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and a full 26.2-mile marathon.

“The people at Penn – all of the amazing healthcare providers, doctors, nurses practitioners, nutritionists, physical therapists, the entire team – brought me back from the brink of death. So I'm extremely, extremely thankful for what they've given to me. And I wake up every morning, take a deep breath, and thank my donor.”

For years, doctors told Derek he would never live a full life. He wasn’t willing to settle for that. Today, he continues to inspire us with his powerful story and his incredible journey from a debilitating illness to becoming an Ironman®.

“Penn Medicine isn’t just healing heart disease, they are working to end it.”

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