“At some point, the likely scenario is that you will need a heart transplant. The best thing we can do is keep your current heart as healthy as possible for as long as possible.” At just 56 years old, Gary, and his wife Susan, received the news that no one wants to hear: Gary’s heart was failing.
One year earlier, a healthy and active Gary quickly turned into a man that had trouble breathing and moving around. Gary decided to see a cardiologist, and he was subsequently diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Treatment was started, but as the year went on it became clear that Gary was getting worse. Cardiac imaging revealed that Gary’s heart was enlarged, and he was sent for a catheterization that would change Gary’s world. Physicians had confirmed a diagnosis of severe right-sided heart failure - a condition that was not typically seen in someone as young as Gary. He would eventually need a heart transplant to survive.
The cause? Unknown. Gary’s heart failure was likely idiopathic and possibly caused by a virus that he didn’t even know he had.
A successful business owner and entrepreneur, Gary was always on the move. So when he heard those words, that a heart transplant was likely in his future, Gary and Susan jumped into action, making sure that he saw additional subspecialists, received second opinions and educated himself on his condition and the treatment options.
Confident in his care at home in Maryland, Gary proceeded with doing all he could to take care of his heart. Over the course of the next seven years, Gary was treated with experimental drugs, had an ICD/pacemaker placed and his care team focused on keeping his heart in working order for as long as they could. Despite their efforts, every few months, his health continued to decline. Finally, at one appointment, Gary’s electrophysiologist sat him down and had a talk with him.
“We are close to Philadelphia. I want you to go up and see Dr. Frank Marchlinski. He is the best problem solver. If he can’t figure this out, no one can.”
Gary drove up to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) where he was monitored and treated by electrophysiologists Dr. Francis Marchlinski and Dr. David Callans. Treatment helped for a short while, but it got to a point where the treatments weren’t helping anymore. Gary was referred to Penn heart failure specialist Dr. J. Eduardo Rame. Immediately, Dr. Rame said that he was a candidate for a heart transplant - there was no mechanical assist device that could help. The time had come.
In the seven years that these treatments had been going on, Gary had retired to Florida with Susan and were eventually joined by their puppy, Salty. Dr. Rame suggested that Gary should return to Florida, get the house in order and come back to Philadelphia for an evaluation. Once Gary was on the transplant list, he and Susan would move in with their daughter Marni in Columbia, Maryland so they would be within the necessary two-hour drive of the hospital.
Gary did just that, and on the day he arrived back in Philadelphia, he was admitted to HUP. His heart had declined so badly in just the few months since he had first met Dr. Rame that he needed the transplant as soon as possible. Testing was performed and Gary was placed on the transplant list. He was listed as a 1A meaning he was in urgent need of a transplant.
For sixty-five days, Gary was in the hospital waiting for a transplant; that’s over two months. His care team--the incredible group of nurses, physicians and ancillary staff on the unit--kept his spirits up. They were constantly encouraging him and making sure that his hope did not fade. It had already been a long road, and while he was hopeful that he would get a heart soon, you just never know when a match will come along.
The wait proved to be both emotionally and physically draining. It was during this time that Gary met Bob Goodman. Bob was a former patient at HUP and had received a heart transplant just a few short years prior. His story had some similarities in that he too went from being an extremely active, young man to fatigued and in heart failure. Bob had walked in Gary’s shoes, and their connection was immediate and strong. Bob would go on to help Gary through some of the toughest times leading up to and recovering from transplant.
At one point during his wait in the hospital, Gary vividly remembers waking to a woman with a binder. Enter Janet Dennis. She would go on to tell Gary her very own transplant story and all about the Transplant Games that she works so hard to participate in every year. The seed of hope for the possibility of a new, active life was planted.
One night, shortly after Thanksgiving, the call came in. Susan was staying at the Clyde Barker Transplant House, and she immediately came to the hospital. Gary was prepped and waiting to be brought down to the operating room. However, it was determined that the high-risk donor heart that Gary was to receive was ultimately not a good match. This was understandably very upsetting. It was his support system that got him through. Knowing that he had Bob, who had gone through this, the nurses and doctors, his wife and daughter and all of his family and friends on his side, helped Gary continue to take it day-by-day.
On Christmas Eve, 2015, the call came again and this time, Gary received his new heart.
After weeks in the hospital and weeks recovering in the transplant house, Gary was released home to continue with his rehabilitation. It was with the stories of Janet and Bob and Derek Fitzgerald, who Dr. Rame had told him all about, that pushed Gary to get back on his bike and start running for the first time in years. Through the ups and downs of his recovery, Gary has continued riding with his sights set on the World Transplant Games in Spain at the end of this month.
Gary has been through more than most can imagine in the last decade. He has fallen numerous times, but every single one of those times he has gotten back up. And, today, here he stands - or rides. Ready to honor his donor and prove that no matter what life throws your way, Gary is living life to its fullest, spending time with his family, taking in every experience and making each day count because that is what matters most.
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