Every Fireman has Strength, Endurance and Courage. This Fireman also has a Transplanted Heart.
Just two years after he'd been given a new heart at the University of Chicago Medicine, Lawrence Matthews, Jr., started fighting fires and protecting lives.
Matthews ran into the occasional skeptic as he went through the lengthy and rigorous process to become a professional firefighter. But he performed well on the required fitness test, which included running a timed mile, climbing a 100-foot ladder and dragging a 180-pound dummy out of a building. He also passed a physical and got the approval of his UChicago Medicine heart transplant team.
“The team often reminded me, before and after the transplant, about the need to live a normal life again,” Matthews recalled. “It was up me to how successful I would be.” He added, “I was always a mentally strong person in going after what I wanted. I believed I could become a firefighter. The doctors gave me the confidence to do so. They told me to go for it. And that’s all I needed to hear.“
Dream Interrupted, Dream Fulfilled
Matthews knew from an early age that he wanted to do some type of public service. He served in the Army National Guard in his early 20s and explored a career in law enforcement. “But when I got sick everything just went out the window,” he said.
When he was just 25, Matthews started suffering shortness of breath and his health rapidly worsened. He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disorder that affects the heart muscle and makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood effectively. In Matthews’ case, the condition quickly led to heart failure and the need for a heart transplant. Fortunately, an organ became available a few months later. Cardiac surgeon Valluvan Jeevanandam, MD, performed the transplant surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine in June 2007.
After a quick and strong recovery, Matthews resumed pursuit of his goals, always “pushing the envelope” on what he could do. He was sworn in as a firefighter in south suburban Dolton in 2009. His first day on the job was Sept. 9, also his 28th birthday.
New Heart, New Life
During one of his many follow-up appointments at the medical center, Matthews met Rachel Cole, a coordinator in the cardiology clinic.
“Because I was new on the job, his flirting made me nervous at first,” Cole said. Eventually, she looked forward to his visits to the clinic. They started dating.
Matthews and Cole are married now and raising three boys and two girls, ages 2 to 16, in the south suburbs of Chicago. Matthews trains the children in the sports they show interest in and he coaches Little League baseball and youth football. He also finds time to work out in the gym and play basketball with friends.
Calling heart transplant a second chance for life, Jeevanandam praised Matthews for “taking this opportunity and maximizing its positive effect for himself, his family and the community.”
Matthews says he is ecstatic every day and grateful to be able to do what I'm doing. “I was blessed with a new heart and a new life,” he said.