Heart Transplant Reunion: A Time to Celebrate a Second Chance at Life
Heart Transplant Recipient Becomes a Firefighter
Larry Matthews had served in the Army National Guard and as he entered his mid-20s was in training to be an overhead lineman for Commonwealth Edison while also exploring a career in law enforcement. "I knew I eventually wanted to do some type of public service," said Matthews. "But when I got sick everything just went out the window."
Matthews started suffering shortness of breath and his health rapidly worsened. He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, and it got so bad that doctors told him he would need a heart transplant. An organ became available and the transplant was performed at the University of Chicago on June 2, 2007.
Matthews made a quick and strong recovery, and resumed pursuit of his goals. A little over two years after the transplant, he was sworn in as a firefighter in south suburban Dolton. His first day on the job was Sept. 9, also his 28th birthday.
"I was blessed with a new heart and a new life," said Matthews. "And the rest of my life I'm going to be saving other peoples' lives."
Matthews said "a lot of people are in shock" when they hear his story, and he ran into the occasional skeptic as he went through the process of becoming a firefighter. But he said he performed well on the required fitness test, which included a timed mile run, a climb of a 100-foot ladder and a drill where he had to drag a 180-pound dummy out of a building. He also passed a physical and got the OK from his University of Chicago Medicine doctors: Valluvan Jeevanandam; Jai Raman; and Savitri Fedson.
"I love it," he said of being a firefighter. He also coaches Little League baseball and youth football. "I'm ecstatic every day and grateful I'm able to do what I'm doing."
During one of his many visits to the medical center, Matthews met Rachel Cole, a coordinator in the cardiology clinic, and the two began dating. That was about two years ago. Recently, both attended a reunion of patients who have undergone heart transplants at the University of Chicago hosted by the Center for Heart Failure Management. Held at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, the reunion brought together staff from the University of Chicago Medicine, heart recipients and those seeking a transplant and allowed everyone a chance to interact outside of the clinical environment.
Savitri Fedson, MD, associate professor of medicine and an expert in heart failure and heart transplantation, greeted Matthews with a hug and the two caught up. Fedson said she loves seeing patients in a more informal atmosphere surrounded by their families, a feeling echoed by other physicians in attendance.
Valluvan Jeevanandam, MD, chief of cardiac and thoracic surgery, spoke to the group, joking that, "You look completely different from when I usually see you."
The University of Chicago Medicine's heart transplant program is one of the largest in the Midwest and its staff sees many patients who are considered high risk, including patients who require a second transplant. Jeevanandam said that he and other medical staff spend much of the time discussing these challenging cases in front of them.
"You almost lose sight of the fact that there are people out there doing great," Jeevanandam said. "You guys are true heroes."
Looking Forward to Transplant Surgery
Two of those heroes are Anthony Wright, 59, of Gary, Ind., and 57-year-old David Kopp of Naperville, both of whom underwent heart transplants at the University of Chicago. The men are now thriving, and were among the transplant recipients who swapped stories at the reunion and re-connected with physicians. They both also shared their experiences with Frank Grabenhofer, who is suffering from congestive heart failure and is waiting for the call to receive a new heart and kidney at the University of Chicago.
Grabenhofer, 55, of Wheaton, has been battling heart issues for a decade and was eventually diagnosed with giant cell myocarditis, an extremely rare and often devastating disease. He had a pacemaker implanted and the heart medication he's on has permanently damaged his kidneys. Grabenhofer and others like him were invited to the reunion so they could see living evidence of the impact of heart transplantation.
"Everybody's story is just so fantastic," Grabenhofer said. "They talk about the symptoms they had, and all the ones they had I have, and they're doing so much better now... This one guy got a new heart two months ago and now he's here, and it's like 'Wow!'" he added. "I'm looking forward to experiencing that, too."