My Husband’s Heart Transplant

by Elizabeth Henry, 49, of Huntington Harbour, freelance writer
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The phone rang earlier than we’d expected. Not earlier in the day—4 a.m. seems about right for a call such as this—but much sooner. We’d been told it could be months. It was a Wednesday in March 2008, and my husband had been on the national organ transplant list for only 10 days. According to cedars-sinai.edu, an average of 18 people on that waiting list die every day.

Bryant, a youthful 63, had struggled with heart disease most of his life. At 36, he’d had bypass surgery. After that, two coronaries.

Still, Bryant lived a remarkably symptom-free life. It was only when he was in the hospital, hooked up to an electrocardiograph, that I could see how his heart really functioned. I had to turn away to avoid the distraction of the errant blips and spasms that made up his EKG.

And yet, he was game for most things. He had lived like each day was a gift. Together, we’d traveled and had a child.

In 2006, Bryant’s symptoms suddenly got worse. And it wasn’t long before my husband, whose swagger has been described as an admiral boarding his flagship, could not walk a block without stopping. The former entertainment executive who’d once gone toe-to-toe with Hollywood’s most powerful now couldn’t wrestle our 3-year-old son.

That’s when Bryant’s cardiologist started talking transplant.

So here we were, 12 hours after that early morning call, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. My husband was finally wheeled into pre-op. He was remarkably calm as I kissed him goodbye, not sure whether it was really “goodbye,” or just “see you later.” They started putting IVs in him and checking his vital signs. I didn’t want to leave, but I wanted the waiting to be over.

A little after 9:30 p.m., the transplant surgeon emerged to tell us the new heart was beating on its own, and Bryant was headed for the cardiac recovery unit.

Exhausted, but grateful, I saw him about 11:30 p.m. and he looked remarkable, his vital signs picture-perfect—and on the monitor over his head, I saw something I’d never seen: normal rhythm.

Since then, we’ve learned to live with the scary unknown of “life after transplant.” The list of cannots, from sushi to cold cuts, seems daunting. So too the number of pills he has to take, at least 19 a day, and all with side effects. Some weaken his immune system. A preschooler—as our son, Evans, was at the time of the operation—is a germ factory. In the first weeks after Bryant’s surgery, Evans brought home a cold, and notes from the school that he had been exposed to pink eye, as well as hand, foot, and mouth disease. But thanks to an epically supportive family and friends—who took in our son when he couldn’t be around his dad—as well as an abiding faith, we’ve gotten through it all.

We’ve also learned that Bryant will still get colds, and that it will take him longer to get over them. But he does get over them. Even the science has improved. In the first year, we drove north to the hospital weekly—and then monthly—for biopsies, in which they would go in through Bryant’s neck to take a piece of the heart to test for rejection. But now, because of advances in identifying rejection, those biopsies no longer are required, and trips to Los Angeles are less frequent. He is back to living life fully, and we’re grateful for each day.

Thanks to this new heart, Bryant can take our son hiking and camping with the Cub Scouts, and we’ve snorkeled beside penguins and seals in the Galapagos. It has all taken on a sweet, sweet rhythm, a lot like the beat of an ordinary life.

Even if you attached a pink organ-donor sticker to your driver’s license, it’s important to register on the official list. You can do it at donatelifecalifornia.org.

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