Part 6: Back to Court

The story of one man's heart transplant, from initial diagnosis of cardiomyopathy in July of 1992 through recovery from heart transplant today in August of 1995, written in seven parts.

- written by Jim Gleason

from 7/92 through 8/95

Heart Transplant Recipient reborn on Oct. 19th, 1994

Was that you out there cheering me on last evening? Yes, out on the local school's tennis courts - this heart transplant patient returned to the courts for the first time in several years - it felt great!! This new heart of mine seemed to enjoy the challenge. (No, Doctor Kelly, this was after sun was going down so I wasn't out in the bright sun - following your orders to keep this medication sensitive skin out of direct prolonged sunlight) My son, Mike, a long and faithful supporter throughout these many months of sickness and recovery, did an excellent job of keeping the ball in my general direction and retrieved my errant returns without complaint. I was never a good tennis player, nor a regular one - but I did enjoy the early years teaching each of our three children how to play. Now at 52 years of age, and 10 months after receiving my new heart at HUP under Drs. Ackers, Low, and Kelly's professional care, and Cathy and Heather's support, it was the next milestone in this recovery miracle to be able to return to hitting a tennis ball. It was especially noteworthy that my loving wife, Jay, accepted the fact that things were so far along on the path to full recovery, that she encouraged my going out tonight, after many months of fear and worrying over every tentative step of progress. But let me put this seemingly small event into perspective for you.

When I was young boy, my father took me out on the courts and passed on his love of tennis. He and my mother had actually courted on the very same tennis courts he then taught me on. He died of congestive heart failure back in 1970 at the age of 52 when there was little doctors could do but watch, attempt to reduce fluids, and wait. Last spring, at 50, I almost met the same fate, but the advances in medicine since then made my own CHF experience just a memory, not a life ending event. Years ago, as a high school teacher I was offered the opportunity to become the school tennis coach, despite my honest response that "I don't know how to play tennis..." (Their reply? "Did we ask you if you knew how to play tennis? We asked if you wanted to be tennis coach.") Well, I learned right along side of the students I was teaching (just a little faster than those who were new to the game themselves, but from a point of view of understanding the beginner's frustrations), later raising my own children (at very young ages) to play the game too. As life passed into adulthood and my forties, playing tennis was far less frequent, but so much fun when we did play. There just didn't seem to be time to play. With a failing heart at 51, tennis was just too much, and so I accepted an end to that part of my earlier life... that is until yesterday!

How can I express what I feel coming back off the court after 45 minutes of hitting, running (albeit slowly), bending to pick up balls (still with too much stomach), in a warm and humid evening air? Last September I was accepted as a heart transplant candidate because it was obvious that my heart was giving out after 2 years of deterioration. I accepted several things at that point:

  • I was never going to be able to return to work again
  • I might not leave this hospital alive
  • I might never see my children's children (only our daughter, Susan, was married yet)
  • and, in a minor area, I never considered ever playing tennis again, that's for certain

Let me (happily!) admit to both you and the whole world right now that I was wrong on all counts, thank God! Consider the facts, now known after an Oct. 19, 1994 transplant,

  • I returned to full employment 4 months after transplant (March 6, 1995)
  • I did leave that hospital alive (and kicking - no, make that "dancing"...) 10 days after transplant (Oct. 29, 1994)
  • My wife, Jay, and I tearfully welcomed our first grand-daughter into this beautiful world August 1st, 1995 (9lbs, 6.5oz - 23 inches long - Susan and baby Carol Marie are doing great, thank you)
  • and tonight, serving, hitting both forehand and backhand, sometimes erratically (but no longer able to blame that on the effects of the steroids, not now that I'm finally off them - talk about your milestones!), I huffed and puffed on the tennis court, suffered a sore tennis elbow, and loved every minute of it! (talk about reframing pain into a different meaning, huh?)

When I was patiently waiting for those many too long weeks in the too small hospital room with too many tubes and needles in my arms, etc., I never envisioned the return to this level of quality of life as I know it today. I share this with you in the hope that you too may see the light at the end of your own tunnel (no matter how long that tunnel may seem today) to be the beautiful sunlight so many of us have come to know through this modern medical miracle known as transplant. Every night, after taking my pills, temperature readings, and blood pressure, I pray for you and your families that the wait may not be too long. That "too long" is not measured in terms of time, but rather events - if you live to see the day of your new heart, then the wait wasn't "too long" - and with the advent of the LVAD that possibility has increased almost without limit - "Wow!" So, you hang in there. Don't count the passing days - there's nothing to count to - there is no schedule for that new heart to arrive. All you know is that it will come! Instead, start counting when you are transplanted - the approximately 2 weeks to leaving the hospital, then the weeks to driving again, and months to get back to work, and . . . well, you can dream your own milestones - and I can assure you that every one is achievable - if you believe and keep your attitude and body as strong as possible. Then write your own story and share it with those who follow behind and have to face their own waiting.

For right now, I have to get on to sleep, for I promised Mike a return match of tennis at 6am tomorrow morning - early enough to be able to get back to the office by 8 - followed by a holiday weekend of family events that were never possible last fall - i.e., pre-transplant. Like so many before you, your heart too will come, and when it does I will be there to visit and congratulate you - and wish you well in facing your own milestones. Hey, maybe we can have a game of tennis together someday, OK? Give me a call when you're ready, meanwhile I'll strengthen this elbow and loose some more weight, so you had better be ready when you make that call.

"See you on the courts!"

>>Return to the Table of Contents