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Heart Transplant: Jack's Story

"I am a prime example of the benefits of organ and tissue donation. I am alive today, a living testimony to the miracle of life."
 
-Jack, who underwent heart transplantation at UW Hospital in 2002
 
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Jack, pictured with his family, underwent a heart transplant at UW Hospital in 2000Jack, pictured with his family, underwent a heart transplant at UW Hospital in 2002.
 
A Blessed Life
 
Even though February 18 is my real birthday, February 22 is the day that my life was given back to me. That's when I received my heart transplant from UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin. Now six years later, I'm blessed to have Sara, a wonderfully supportive, strong and caring woman as my life partner and best friend. I also have Emily and Erin, two healthy and beautiful daughters. It's hard to put into words how important these three girls are to me. I'm also blessed because of the generosity of a family from the Marshfield area who donated their 18-year-old son's heart. I'm alive today because this family gave the ultimate gift of life during the most difficult time of their lives. 

I was a healthy 35-year-old who exercised regularly and lived a healthy lifestyle. I worked as an elementary school counselor in Green Bay and I was an active high school soccer coach and referee. Life couldn't have been better for me. Then suddenly in December of 2001, I was infected with a virus that severely weakened my heart without me even realizing it. By the middle of January, I couldn't get out of our reclining chair and it was difficult to breath.
 
A Frightening Turn

After seeing three different doctors, Sara put her foot down and had me admitted to the hospital for an echocardiogram. Some people say that their spouse saved their life, Sara saved me through her strength and determination. The next morning, during my first test, the technician asked me how long I had been in heart failure. In my head I was saying "heart what?" After noticing my loss for words, she excused herself and came back immediately with a cardiologist. The doctor told me that my heart was pumping at 15 percent efficiency. I later found out that I had a blood clot in my left ventricle and my kidneys and liver were working at only 50 percent of their capacity.

I have never been more scared in my life. All I could think about was my family and the events that I would miss like birthdays, first dates, driver's tests, graduations and weddings. I thought about how I had spend so many hours watching my daughters breath in their bassinets, a time when they were starting out their lives. Now it seemed like I was going to miss the rest.

Before I knew it I was immediately sent to UW Hospital in Madison. By the time I got there the doctors were talking about a heart transplant. The day before I thought I might have pneumonia or bronchitis and now they are talking about putting a different heart into me. Wow, talk about overwhelming news. I found out that I was so sick that I couldn't leave the hospital until I had a transplant. My parents and brothers flew in from Colorado and Connecticut. I remember saying how nice it was for them to come and see me and how I wished that I felt better so I could enjoy the reunion. I didn't know until months later that the medical staff at UW Hospital told Sara to have them come just in case I didn't make it.
 
Stubborn Determination

I waited at the hospital for five weeks, hooked up to IVs and monitors. Then again I was blessed. I could have waited longer. I met a man there who was in the hospital for eight months waiting for a heart. Eighteen people die each day in our country waiting for an organ transplant and there are almost 1,600 people waiting for life-saving organ transplants right now in Wisconsin (and more than 95,000 people in the U.S). The wait for me was excruciating but at least I had a chance to live.

My time at the hospital passed very slowly. I caught up on a lot of reading but the hardest time was between visits from my family. I missed the simple day-to-day stuff that we all take for granted like eating together and bedtime routines. Eating dinner around the IV stand just wasn't the same as around the dinner table. As a first grader, Emily was learning how to read. Erin was only three years old and still loved to have her mother and I sing to her before bed. We tried to share some of these experiences over the phone but it just wasn't the same.

Many people wonder how I got through this experience with my sanity. I usually tell them that it was easier for me than it was for Sara. I think that if she were the one that was in heart failure, I would have been far more frantic than I was for myself. I believe that I got through this experience because of her strength and support. I also believe that my faith, positive attitude and determination were my saving grace. I prayed a lot. I promised myself that I would get back to my previous life. Sara always teases me that I am determined but we both know she really means I'm stubborn. Well, I admit it, it's true. I was stubborn about getting my life back.

Important Messages to Remember
 
Then came February 22, 2002, four days after my 36 birthday, when a nurse flipped on the light at 2:30am and told me that they had a heart for me. I called Sara and she came to the hospital for the surgery, which was to start at 6:30am that morning. Everything after that went very quickly. Just three weeks after the surgery, I was home again. As you can see I'm truly blessed. I have a wonderful family and good friends. I now have my good health. I can do everything that I could before my transplant with only a few inconveniences. I also have a new lease on life, including a different perspective about all of the small stuff that so many other people get concerned about.

I have two closing messages. First, I am a prime example of the benefits of organ and tissue donation. I am alive today, a living testimony to the miracle of life. Sara and I always had the donation sticker on our driver's license because it made sense to us. Please sign your license and inform your family of your decision. I didn't know until my transplant that the sticker on your license is not always honored. Families are always asked to confirm this decision prior to any organ or tissue donation, so please inform your family of your wish to be an organ or tissue donor.
 
My second message is to go home and give your children, spouse, parents and anyone else you love a hug and tell them how important they are to you. You might even want to tell them how blessed you are to have them in your life. Hold them tightly because you're truly blessed.