Nandan S Young Father Receives the Gift of Life with a Heart Transplant

My team of doctors did a great job.

Nandan Savalia has always enjoyed living a healthy lifestyle. He remained active, regularly participating in fitness classes at his gym and watching his diet. He never had any heart health issues until one day in 2018 following a vigorous cardio boot camp class.

“I went to the gym and took cardio boot camp and yoga classes three times a week or more,” the 50-year-old Manalapan resident said. “I never had any issues. But after one class (in June 2018), I felt a little shortness of breath that wouldn’t go away.”

Nandan’s shortness of breath was a sign that he suffered a heart attack during his class. The heart attack caused severe damage to Nandan’s heart leading him on a three-year journey that ended happily with a successful heart transplant at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) at New Brunswick.

On the day of his heart attack, Nandan waited for an hour after the class thinking he just needed to cool down and relax following the vigorous workout. After returning home and waiting another 15 minutes, he still couldn’t catch his breath.

He then went to a local hospital’s emergency room where he underwent a series of tests and doctors determined that he had suffered a heart attack. He was administered a clot-busting drug but Nandan’s symptoms grew worse. Because the hospital didn’t have a cardiac catheterization laboratory, he was airlifted to RWJUH, a cardiovascular center of excellence.

The cardiac catheterization revealed blockage of one of the main arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle. However, the muscle had already been damaged and his heart function was reduced.

“After about six to eight months, I started getting more and more tired,” Nandan recalled.

Activities that never gave him trouble in the past were now a physical challenge.

Nandan was then referred to RWJUH’s Advanced Heart Failure, Ventricular Assist Device and Transplant Program. The team initially managed his heart failure by with medication.

After undergoing further testing, doctors determined that his heart function was lower than normal and he was placed on additional medications to support his heart and pulmonary function.

He was then referred to the Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant Cardiology Program to be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team led by Medical Director Deepa Iyer, MD, and Hirohisa Ikegami, MD, Surgical Director of the Heart Transplant Program. Following evaluation, Nandan was placed on the heart transplant waiting list.

Nandan’s fatigue worsened and he underwent additional tests. Given persistent fatigue, Nandan had another right heart catheterization. Tests revealed that his heart function was low and his pulmonary pressure was too high. The team then implanted a temporary Ventricular Assist Device (VAD) to support his failing heart and prevent damage to his other vital organs. He remained in RWJUH’s Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU) for 51 days before receiving his life-saving transplant. The wait was an emotional roller coaster for several reasons.

“On July 21, 2021, my birthday, my team woke me up at 6:30 in the morning to tell me that a heart may be available,” he said.

But following further tests, it was determined that Nandan’s blood had antibodies to the donor heart which indicated a prohibitive risk of rejection.

After receiving this disappointing news, Nandan continued to work remotely on his computer in his Information Technology job. He walked 15-20 laps around the CVICU each day to stay as healthy as he could as he waited for a suitable heart.

During this time, his father, who had been undergoing cancer treatments, had a serious fall.

“My dad was in RWJUH to have surgery for a brain hemorrhage after his fall,” Nandan explained.

Special arrangements were made by the care team and hospital administration so Nandan could safely visit his father who was critically ill in RWJUH’s Neurocritical Care Intensive Care Unit. “I was able to visit with my father but I lost him on August 12.”

The grief was overwhelming, but Nandan was determined to survive and leave the hospital to be with his wife, Toral, and his two children, Riya (age 16) and Rohan (age 14).

Finally, on August 18, he received the news he waited so long to hear: a donor heart had been found and it was a perfect match. Dr. Hirohisa Ikegami successfully performed the transplant.

“My team of doctors did a great job,” Nandan said. “There is a reason that many in the hospital say that Dr. Ikegami has the hand of God.”

“Losing my father was very difficult, but I feel that he went up there (to heaven) for me to make sure there was a heart for me,” he added.

“Mr. Savalia has been an epitome of resilience, courage and perseverance. Our entire team celebrated when we were able to let him know that we had the perfect donor heart for him. He had an amazing recovery. He able to walk just three days post-transplant and was discharged to his home on August 26, just eight days after his transplant. He follows up for his protocol post- transplant testing and visits, is doing very well and continues to inspire everyone with his dedication and discipline,” said Dr. Iyer.

Nandan hasn’t returned to classes at the gym yet but he logs 10,000 steps every day. He looks forward to traveling again with his wife and children – just one of the things they did as a family that was put on hold.

Looking back on all of the emotional ups and downs during his heart transplant journey, there was one constant for Nandan – he never gave up.

“I lost three years of my life, so it is good to get life back to normal,” he said. “My advice to other patients is to never give up. Always stay active to boost your body and stay ready for when that day comes.”