Organ failure is a beast and this picture marks the beginning of my heart failure. My wife, Julie is my rock. She is one of the main reasons I'm still here today. In 2015, I was fishing in a remote village in Baja Mexico and caught (pun intended), a horrible flu virus that ruined my trip and kept me in bed for almost a week. Fast forward two years later (March 18, 2017), Julie and I were spending the weekend in San Francisco and while we were walking the steep streets of San Francisco, I had a sudden massive heart attack (this type of heart attack is fondly referred to as the “widow maker”). I went into cardiac arrest twice and by the Grace of God I survived. It was then that I was plunged into the world of heart failure. I have always felt that the most important thing in life is to be “happy and healthy”. It’s easy to have that thought when things are “easy”. My heart attack put this to the test. Not knowing where I would be or how I would feel from one day to the next was challenging and stressful. I have always loved being on the go, playing and working in the outdoors. But, after two years of heart failure with multiple lung and heart surgeries, I began to struggle with even the easiest of tasks (like walking up one flight of stairs).
Heart failure is a vicious beast that grabs on and knocks you down; but family and friends are what help keep you standing strong. The love and support that others give you when you are living with a fatal disease can be the turning point to a better life. We all have challenges at some point during our lives (some more than others), and the important thing to understand is how we respond to those challenges. It IS what makes the difference in the outcome. My doctors kept telling me that they couldn't quite figure out what was happening to my heart. I was rapidly going into end-stage heart failure and after 9 months of surgeries and tests, Stanford came to the conclusion that I needed a new heart to survive. While spending 8 days in the CICU, I was subjected to a battery of tests. The process of being approved for an organ donation is incredibly difficult, and with each and every test comes the possibility of not qualifying. I believe my wife and I held our breaths until that 8th day, when I was told I qualified to be placed on the UNOS list to receive a new heart.
I was placed on the list, but was told that it may be up to six months before they found a match for me. They felt I would be more comfortable waiting at home for my new heart and I remember thinking to myself, I don’t know if I can make it that long. Three weeks later I was walking at the lake near our home, trying to keep my spirits up. As I stood there at the lake with very little energy to lift my phone, I took a picture of the sunset and prayed that I would be fortunate enough to receive a new heart soon. I did not think my heart was going to last much longer.
That same night at 7pm I received a call from one of the Fellows at Stanford, and he told me that they had a donor heart for me, and that I should start heading to Stanford. You are allowed 4 hours to get to the hospital, and the doctor knew that I had a 3 hour drive.
So my daughter, my wife and I got into the car and headed to a place that I had become so accustomed to, but suddenly now, I was so unsure of. I instantly felt overwhelmed. A fellow heart recipient, and now friend of mine, Pat, had told me the year before that there’s no way for someone to prepare themselves for getting a new heart. After arriving at Stanford, I was then put through another battery of tests, and was told that I would most likely go into surgery around 2am. I could tell my wife was nervous, and I could tell that my daughter was trying to keep my wife’s mind off of what was about to happen by engaging her mom in games on her phone. The fellow came in and told us what would occur, how long I would be in surgery (approximately 4-6 hours), and so on. The most difficult part was hearing that even after all this prep work; I could get into the operating room at 2 am and could be told that the heart on the other end was “no good”.
Once I was lying on the operating table with a large amount of medical staff around me all moving to their own beats, as though they had done this a million times before, and I was asked what song I would like to hear, and then they played “Sharp Dressed Man” by ZZ Top, the phone rang, the doctor told me the heart was good and we are a “go”, asked me one last time if I was good with it, and then he told me “Okay Don, we will see you on the other side”. I spent what seemed like only a few seconds in the dark after my surgery began. My surgery did not go as planned, and what seemed like just a few minutes to me, turned into a 13 hour surgery.
I was kept in an induced coma for that first night, to give my body and my new heart time to rest. When I awoke, I remember my cardiologist asking me if I knew his name, I told him yes, you are Randall Vagelos, I love you, and you helped save my life! He responded by saying that’s great, you know my name. Dr. Vagelos is a very humble man that is brilliant at what he does, save lives on a daily basis. He told me, this is a new beginning for you, work hard to stay healthy. Julie and I spent 3 months in and out of clinic visits, recovering and connecting my mind, body and soul with my new heart. After I had concluded my “after-care”, I was back at home with my family.
When you are living in the world of Organ failure often you feel as if you are all alone. Always know that there are resources out there for you, all you have to do is reach out. Many Organ recipients suffer from “survivor’s guilt”, and I happen to be one of those people who did. There is one thing I am certain of, we all should show our gratitude and help create awareness for such an amazing gift. My gift of a new heart is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. It has given me a second chance and I will be forever grateful. That is why I have created donorgratitude.org, a place for Organ recipients to heal and show gratitude, to all of those who have made their "Gift of Life" possible. This picture was taken this summer 2021. I feel as if I'm on top of the world now, I’m enjoying what I love best, my beautiful wife, my family and friends, loving the great outdoors. My mission is to never forget the blessing I have received and continue as long as I can to build "The Bridge of Life", Organ recipients connecting with all those who help make the "Gift of Life" Possible.