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The Gift of Time

Thanks to a heart transplant at The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Steve Herndon has received the most precious gift of all – more time with his loved ones

Steve HerndonAbout 2 years ago, Steve Herndon of Olathe, Kansas, wasn't feeling well. He thought his fatigue and shortness of breath were caused by allergies. But an X-ray told a different story.

"The X-ray showed I had an enlarged heart," Herndon says. "Until that point, I had no idea I was having heart issues. I had just gone on a 5-mile hike with my family."

Herndon's doctor diagnosed him with heart failure – a condition that occurs when the heart can't pump blood the way it should. When this happens, the heart must work harder to get blood to the organs. Heart failure is a very serious, often fatal, condition.

In just 5 days, Herndon's condition went from bad to worse. He went to an emergency room at a nearby hospital.

"I couldn't breathe and my heart was racing," he says. "It was beating roughly 132 beats per minute."

A higher level of care

Cardiologists determined Herndon was too sick for conventional treatment and needed more advanced care. He was transferred by ambulance to The University of Kansas Health System where an entire team of doctors and nurses was waiting for him.

Two members of that team were cardiologist Andrew Sauer, MD, and cardiothoracic surgeon Travis Abicht, MD. Dr. Sauer and Dr. Abicht ordered multiple tests and determined Herndon was in cardiogenic shock.

"Cardiogenic shock is a situation in which the heart is failing so badly, the other organs are failing as well," Dr. Sauer says. "It's very high risk. Over 50% of people experiencing cardiogenic shock are at risk for death."

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To make matters worse, Herndon's heart was so sick that it wasn't moving blood, and blood clots were forming behind his heart. One large blood clot in Herndon's lungs, called a pulmonary embolism, was causing the right side of his heart to fail. He was given an emergency clot buster medication – a risky treatment due to the amount of blood loss the medicine can cause. But for Herndon, there was no other option.

"We had to get him out of cardiogenic shock so his heart could get strong enough for us to evaluate what our options were," Dr. Sauer says.

And while the team rushed into action to save Herndon's life, he was preparing for the worst. He said what he thought would be his final goodbye to his wife.

"I thought I was going to die."

The next step toward health

Herndon's blood clot was resolved with the medicine he received, but he remained in critical care at The University of Kansas Health System for one month while his heart got stronger. During this time, his heart care team found another hurdle: Herndon was born with a congenital heart defect called a bicuspid aortic valve. This condition had caused the main valve between the heart and body, the aortic valve, to break down over time and fail.

"The valve failure led to the heart failure," Dr. Sauer says. "We needed to replace the valve, but he also needed mechanical support to keep him from dying of the complications associated with his valve failure."

The mechanical support Dr. Sauer was referring to is called a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD. An LVAD is a surgically implanted mechanical pump that helps the heart get blood to the body. It can be used to help heart failure patients survive until they are able to receive a heart transplant. Or it can remain in the body for several years – improving a person's quality of life. In Herndon's case, the LVAD was a temporary solution until a new heart became available.

Almost back to normal

With his LVAD, Herndon was able to return home and live a mostly normal life. His heart failure symptoms and quality of life greatly improved. He was doing so well, in fact, that when he was offered to be put on the waitlist for a heart transplant, he declined.

"I had just started a new job, I didn't want to disappear right away," he says.

But within 3-4 months, Herndon was waitlisted for a new heart. Then, while watching the movie Dunkirk at the theatre with his family, he got the call that a new heart was waiting for him.

"I jumped out of my seat and ran outside to answer it," he says. "I wasn't expecting it. I was excited and sad at the same time. I knew someone had lost their life."

A successful surgery

Dr. Abicht performed Herndon's heart transplant surgery. The surgery took about 9 hours, and when Herndon awoke, he got good news.

"Dr. Abicht gave me a big smile and said the surgery went well," he says.

Herndon remained at the hospital for about a month to heal, but he was up and moving quickly. Within 8 weeks, he was back at his job as a software manager for Garmin. He also completed a 12-week cardiac rehabilitation program to help him regain strength and learn strategies for a heart-healthy lifestyle.

A new start

Today, Herndon is mostly back to his old self but with a few restrictions.

"I can't have sushi anymore because of the medication I'm on, and I'm a huge sushi fan," Herndon says. "But being alive is a better gig. It's a very small tradeoff."

Since his surgery, Herndon has been able to get back to one of his favorite hobbies – woodworking. He makes custom furniture using hand tools and is currently working on a potting bench for his wife, something he would not have had the energy to do before his transplant. He also enjoys spending time with his family doing what he calls "normal family stuff" like playing board games and shuttling his two sons from place to place.

"The gift of a new heart is the opportunity to save a life," he says. "It's the gift of time – time with my family and friends that I would not have had. Hopefully, I get time to see my kids grow up and have kids of their own."

Herndon says he thinks about all he went through and feels grateful to his care team at The University of Kansas Health System. Of course, he thinks about another unforgettable hero – his donor.

"My donor gave me their heart; they've given me everything. Without them, I wouldn't be sitting here today," he says. "I'm forever grateful that their sacrifice allowed me to live, and I can only hope I live up to the potential of the loved one who was lost."