A Soldier's Heart: From Basic Training to Heart Transplant at UW Hospital and Clinics
Josef Hutcherson had one dream: to serve his country in the military. After high school, he started basic training at Lakeland Air Force Base. A healthy, physically fit recruit, he enjoyed the demands of basic training, but inexplicably his body began to falter. As the weeks passed, his energy level plummeted.
"At first I thought I just had a virus," says Hutcherson. "But I kept feeling worse, and I was so tired." Determined to complete basic training, he pushed himself and with encouragement from his fellow soldiers, he literally crawled over the finish line to complete his final training test.
Hutcherson was now officially a soldier, but his next stop was the hospital where he learned his heart was severely enlarged. "I knew it was bad when they told my mom to come," he says. Despite three years of excellent care under many physicians, Hutcherson's health continued to deteriorate. His doctor in Georgia recommended a heart transplant, and he and his mother, Mattie, a nurse, selected the UW Health Heart Transplant Program.
"There are only a few transplant programs approved to perform transplants for the Veterans Administration," says Mattie. "We studied the programs and were impressed with the strong outcomes in Madison. We also liked the relationship between UW Hospital and the VA Hospital."
When he arrived at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, Josef's heart was so damaged he was rushed into surgery to implant a left ventricular assist device (LVAD). "Without this device," says Niloo Edwards, MD, chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at UW Hospital and Clinics, "Josef's heart would likely have failed while he waited for a donor."
During recovery, Josef and Mattie talked about what Josef would do when he received a new heart. "We discussed the beautiful gift of life that someone would give him by being an organ donor," Mattie says. "It was a lot to absorb. We both had to prepare ourselves to accept that gift."
A few weeks later, at age 24, Josef received a new heart. "Through it all, I just kept fighting," he says. "I had to be strong for everyone who worked so hard to save my life, and for all my family and friends. It was the best way to thank them."
Now back home in Georgia, Josef has embraced a new dream: to enjoy his health and make the most of the gift so generously given to him.