In May 2016, Daniel S. was just weeks away from his high school graduation. The honors student and volleyball player looked forward to starting college in the fall, the first step in his path to a career in occupational therapy.
That all changed the night after his senior prom. As he lay in bed, Daniel felt a sudden, searing pain in his right leg. His parents drove him to the local emergency department, where Daniel received numerous tests. At first, all of the test results were normal. Then doctors ran a CT scan of Daniel’s heart.
Around 5 a.m., a doctor returned with the results.
“She said, ‘I think we found the problem,’” Daniel says.
A bacterial infection had damaged the valves in Daniel’s heart.
“They realized that the valves in my heart had holes in them,” he says. “The blood wasn’t pushing through the heart like it was supposed to.”
Daniel spent the next few weeks in his local hospital, where he had more tests, including an MRI that showed he’d recently had a stroke — which he hadn’t realized. “Fortunately, I had no effects from it,” he says.
Daniel’s healthcare team decided that he needed emergency open-heart surgery to fix his faulty heart valves. But after the surgery, Daniel developed sepsis, a life-threatening condition triggered by the bacterial infection.
Daniel was placed in a medically induced coma, and a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) was used to help his heart function. An LVAD pumps blood from the left ventricle (the pumping chamber of the heart) to the aorta, the artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.
Advanced care and technology at Temple kept Daniel alive
Daniel was airlifted to Temple University Hospital, home to the Temple Heart & Vascular Institute, among the most advanced in the country.
At Temple, surgeons replaced the LVAD with a biventricular assist device (BIVAD), a mechanical pump which helps pump blood from both the right and left ventricles. To help keep him alive, Daniel was also placed on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine. ECMO does the work of the heart and lungs by circulating oxygen-depleted blood outside of the body and through the machine, where it receives oxygen and is returned to the body.
Daniel woke up from the medically induced coma on July 4, 2016, in Temple’s cardiac intensive care unit. There, he was told that a heart transplant was his best chance to live.
“My thoughts were racing,” Daniel says of the day he learned he needed a new heart. “I had to have faith in the team of people to do the best they could.”
Temple specialists evaluated Daniel to make sure he was a good candidate for a transplant. They looked at his medical history, reviewed his condition and conducted a series of tests.
‘An emotional experience’
At the end of July 2016, almost three months after his ordeal began, Daniel qualified for the heart transplant waiting list. Members of Daniel’s healthcare team began to get Daniel up and walking to improve his chances of having a favorable outcome.
Temple’s Heart Transplant Program is known for having shorter waiting times for a transplant, but there was no way to know how long it would take for a matching heart to become available.
Nine days later, a transplant coordinator called his hospital room with news that a donor heart was available. The date was August 9, 2016.
Daniel called his parents, who rushed to his side. As he celebrated with his family, Daniel experienced mixed emotions. On the one hand, a new heart meant an opportunity to embrace a second chance at life. But he also thought of the donor’s family and their loss.
“You’re feeling everything at once,” Daniel says. “It was a very emotional experience.”
Daniel underwent heart transplant surgery later that night. Yoshiya Toyoda, MD, PhD, and the Temple transplant team replaced Daniel’s diseased heart with a healthy one.
Over the next several months, Daniel continued to recover from his heart transplant.
A young and grateful heart
Five years after his heart transplant, Daniel is making good on his promise to make the most of his organ donor’s precious gift.
“I continue to stay active and involved in different things. I’m grateful for where I am right now,” Daniel says.
And where Daniel is right now is on the cusp of becoming a certified occupational therapist — the goal that was sidetracked in 2016, when his heart began to fail. In 2017, the year after his transplant, Daniel enrolled in college. He’s currently completing his master’s degree in occupational therapy and hopes to begin working in the profession soon. He says his experience as a heart transplant recipient has given him a better understanding of what many of his patients may be going through.