Chuck M 10-year Anniversary Chuck's Story

He is also deeply grateful to RWJUH’s Heart Transplant Team for giving him the ultimate second chance at life.

When Chuck had his heart attack, his symptoms were very subtle – a dull pain between his shoulder blades that felt like a muscle strain. Chuck tolerated the pain for two days before seeing a doctor who shared the surprising, bad news: he had suffered a heart attack.

Chuck’s cardiologist Dr. Paul Barone managed his condition with medications for several years, but the damage to his heart caused by the initial attack led to heart failure. Dr. Barone told him he would need a new heart.

The news shocked Chuck.

“I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t in pain or anything – I was living a normal life,” he said.

In hindsight, Chuck believes his condition had grown worse, but he “blew it off.”

“It probably was getting worse, but I have a high tolerance for pain,” he recalled.

Dr. Barone referred him to RWJUH Heart Transplant Team. A Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) was implanted to support his heart function and prevent damage to his organs.

After receiving the LVAD, Chuck returned to work and tried to live as normal life as he could with the implanted device, a new technology at the time. The only difficulty he encountered with his LVAD came during a lengthy power outage caused by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Thankfully, a kind neighbor had a generator to keep the device’s batteries charged and powered.

Eventually, the team met with Chuck and told him he was at a crossroads. He had an important decision to make about how he wanted to live his life: keep the LVAD as a permanent therapy for heart failure or be evaluated for a heart transplant.

“I wanted to return to as normal a life as possible, so I decided I wanted a new heart,” Chuck explained.

The team began performing an extensive range of tests to ensure that Chuck was a good candidate for transplant.

“The Heart Transplant Team was the greatest bunch of people that I ever met, to me, they were like family,” he said.

In late November, Chuck and his wife, Debbie, received a call at 2:30 a.m. in the morning: a potential donor heart was being evaluated.

He rushed to the hospital but the team was not able to perform the transplant because the donor heart turned out to not be a good match for him.

He was disappointed, but became inspired by one of the nurses in RWJUH’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.

“She told me that I need to go into Zen mode,” Chuck recalled. “I had to relax, think about something else and let the team take care of everything. She told me if I can do that, next time I will get through it okay.”

A week later, Chuck and Debbie received a call at the exact same time – 2:30 a.m. A donor heart had been found and this time, it was a perfect match. The heart transplant was successfully performed on December 7, 2012.

Initially, Chuck returned to RWJUH for frequent follow-up visits, blood work, and biopsies to make sure his body was not rejecting the donor heart.

Now, 10 years later, he returns twice a year for follow-up visits with the RWJUH Heart Transplant Team and has blood tests every three months. His blood work and tests have been good and he hasn’t had any problems post-transplant.

“I don’t even think about it (that he’s had a heart transplant), I feel normal,” he explained.

Chuck continues to work and is playing golf again.

Jackie Burbank, MSN RN, Advance Heart Failure/VAD/Transplant Coordinator, who guided Chuck through his transplant in 2012 continues to see him during his follow-up visits over the past 10 years.

According to Burbank, transplant recipients face a new reality and need to adopt lifestyle changes that many find difficult to face. She notes that a big part of any successful transplant is the support system surrounding a patient. Jackie says that Chuck has a great one with his wife, Debbie. The couple celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary in January.

“She was instrumental in making sure that he did everything he needed to do (both pre- and post-transplant,” Burbank explained. “Debbie kept on top of everything whether it was lab tests and follow-up visits or the medications he needs. I credit a lot of his great outcome to the support he had from his wife.”

Burbank said that Chuck’ attitude also helped him reach this significant milestone. Debbie also credits their children, sons Ryan and David, and David’s wife Courtney, for giving Chuck a reason to keep fighting and not lose hope.

“Chuck knew that he wanted to return to an active life and go back to work right away - he was committed to living as normal a life as possible,” Burbank noted.

Because Chuck didn’t take his heart health as seriously as he should have, he urges others to adopt healthy lifestyles and get regular check-ups.

“I didn’t take care of myself, I smoked and had a lot of stress at work,” he said. “I snacked a lot and I also had diabetes which I didn’t know at the time. I never went to the doctor. When you start getting older, you have to see a doctor and manage your health.”

Chuck was never able to meet his heart donor’s family, but he remains in awe of their selfless act.

“Anyone willing to donate an organ, it’s such an incredible, precious thing, I still get choked up when I think about what they did,” he said.

He is also deeply grateful to RWJUH’s Heart Transplant Team for giving him the ultimate second chance at life.

“The team was hard on me at times, but they had to be because I’m stubborn,” Chuck explained. “But they are the greatest on team on Earth.”