I remember the days when I traveled for work, especially during the wintertime. Bad weather and long delays at airports ruled the day. Despite the fact that neither I nor my fellow passengers had any control over snowstorms and flight schedules, the collective mood at the gate was always tense, frustrating, and stressful.
Our lives are filled with these types of “hurry up and wait” moments. We’ve all experienced the frustration of hustling to get ready for work just to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic because of an accident on the freeway. Some of us have experienced rushing a loved one to the emergency room only to wait for hours as doctors tended to sicker patients. Circumstances that we have no power over always seem to irritate us the most.
For the majority of my 56 years, I’ve been an impatient man. I’m a product of the “I want it and I want it now” baby boom generation willing to work hard, but reluctant to let God manage the schedule. Life experience and witnessing the wonder of God’s will when everything seemed hopeless have significantly toned down my generational want of instant gratification.
It took many years and countless flights to accept the reality of unpredictable air travel. Once the realization that I had no control over how airlines managed schedules disrupted by weather, the anxiety that comes with unexpected delays no longer ruined my time at a busy airport. Endless days in the hospital further strengthened my patience and taught me to embrace the power of accepting God’s timeline.
I’m now in the most consequential hurry up and wait moment of my life. I’m waiting for a heart. Physically and emotionally, no other challenge has been harder. My daily routine is dominated by keeping the rest of my body strong and healthy. My thoughts seesaw from the anticipation of getting “the call” to the mixed-feelings that come with knowing someone will lose a life to save mine.
To complicate matters, management of the transplant list is complex. It’s not like waiting for your turn in line for a ride at Disneyland. That’s why it’s impossible to predict when a transplant will happen. The criteria for placement on the list are developed by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
To begin with, there are three major considerations. First, the heart donor and the recipient must have the same blood type. Second, the donor and the recipient need to be about the same size. Third, the donor and recipient should be relatively close in distance to ensure that the heart is strong when it arrives at the recipient’s hospital.
The criteria developed by OPTN to determine in what order heart transplant recipients are selected include the following 6 categories (Status 1 patients are first in line):
Status 1: The patient is in the hospital and connected to an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine. The ECMO does the work for the heart and lungs and is necessary to keep the patient alive.
Status 2: The patient is in the hospital with a LVAD heart pump that has malfunctioned and isn’t working properly or the patient’s heart rhythm can’t be managed by medication or a pacemaker.
Status 3: The patient is not in the hospital, has an implanted LVAD heart pump, and is qualified to be placed on a 30-day priority list. This puts the patient first in line if there are no Status 1 or Status 2 patients in the hospital.
Status 4: The patient is not in the hospital, has an implanted LVAD heart pump, isn’t on a 30-day priority list, and is otherwise healthy.
Status 5: The patient needs more than one organ transplanted.
Status 6: The patient is a candidate for a heart transplant.
With that being crystal clear (LOL), it might make some sense how my 16-month journey on the transplant list has been quite an emotional adventure. After a rigorous 7-month evaluation period, I qualified for the list in late October 2018. I was excited about the prospect of getting a new heart, but the excitement only lasted for about a week.
Some 10 days later, the heart transplant team implanted a LVAD pump to help my heart function while I’m on the waitlist. At that time, the team deactivated my placement on the list until the chest wound fully healed from the LVAD surgery. During the spring of 2019, the doctors determined that I had fully recovered. I was overjoyed by the thought of being reactivated on the list. But…
During the November operation, my lungs reacted negatively to the surgery and made the procedure challenging. Although doctors proactively addressed the lung issues, they remained concerned about the health of my lungs as they deliberated over the decision to reactivate. With that in mind, the team recommended a reevaluation of my lung function before placing me back on the list. My joy quickly turned into uncertainty.
Four more months of lung function tests and medication adjustments followed. In August 2019, the lungs received a clean bill of health. I was reactivated on the transplant list as a Status 4 patient. I had a well-functioning LVAD and in general good health. It was in an ideal situation. Doctors could be strategic about when to implement the 30-day priority status. I felt confident about the path forward.
Later that fall, the cardiology team decided that the time was right to kick in the 30-day priority option and elevate me to Status 3. There were no Status 1 or Status 2 patients in the hospital at the time. I was next in line for someone with my blood type and size. A million thoughts raced through my mind. I was excited, scared, nervous, and grateful all at once.
A mere 15 hours after being bumped up to priority status, a cardiologist from the Stanford transplant team called at 1:00 AM to let me know that a match had been identified. He asked that I report to the Stanford Hospital cardiac unit at 10:00 AM later that morning to prepare for surgery. After 7 sleepless hours, I showered, packed a small bag, and let the girls know what was happening.
Shortly before 9:00 AM, Sandra and I were on the freeway heading north on U.S. 101. It felt like the longest 40-minute drive of our lives.
To be continued…