Never Give Up! Overcoming Adversity — My Story.
I am now five plus years post heart transplant but it took nearly four of those years to recuperate fully. I was in poor health prior to the life-saving surgery so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that feeling “really good” took some time.
This blog has two points, the first how abusing my body brought me to need a transplant and the second is a note of encouragement to others, “Never give up!”
Here’s my story. At age 15 I started smoking cigarettes. At the time it was the thing to do, everyone smoked and some of the ads even suggested the habit was good for you. For the next thirty seven years I inhaled up to four packs of cigarettes a day. With the help of Nicorette gum I kicked the habit in 1991, but the damage had already been done. I had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and asthma, maladies that make it extremely difficult to breathe with or without exertion.
At about the same age I began to drink alcoholic beverages. Early on I didn’t think I had much of a problem, I drank only on weekends but I never knew when to quit. One drink led to many which led to falling down drunk. I went on that way for many years, sober during the week and on the occasional weekend I would get “plastered” (a term from my dad’s generation). Then when I was about 33 years old something snapped and I began to drink every day. Sometimes I drank up to two quarts of Vodka a day but never less than a pint of the clear almost odorless liquid. Finally after ten years of this voluntary torture I admitted I had a serious problem and committed myself for a twenty-eight day treatment program. That was in 1982 and I have been sober ever since. The damage, though, had probably been done. Not long after that I began having heart problems and was finally diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle. By 2007 I was in the end stages of the disease and at age 68 got a heart transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.
I fully expected that recuperation from the surgery would take a few months. I had no idea what I was in for and not through the fault of the great medical care I received. My much abused body was a mess. A couple of months after my transplant I got pneumonia which hospitalized me for a week and had me down and almost out for almost a month (obviously having COPD was of no help). Then I developed severe pain, first in my left arm and shoulder (probably attributable to the awkward positioning of my arm during surgery. The left arm is raised at a strange angle to allow the surgeon better access to the chest cavity). The pain was intense and began to spread to my neck, my back and then the other shoulder. Sometime the pain was so great I was almost totally immobilized, I slept in a recliner chair for months and often wept out of suffering and frustration. Physicians tried several remedies but finally prescribed Oxycontin, a powerful narcotic. After several months of physical therapy and other treatment the pain began to dissipate but my need for Oxycontin didn’t. I was hooked, and severely depressed, so depressed that I spent everyday, all day sitting in the dark watching inane TV shows. I wasn’t eating much either and lost 50 pounds. I wasn’t suicidal but I sure wasn’t happy about living either.
Finally I convinced myself that I needed help so with the assistance of a drug called Suboxone, I was weaned from the Oxycontin and finally stopped taking it and the Suboxone after several months.
It was now over a year since my transplant and I felt and looked terrible. My usual upbeat attitude was gone and the only reason I got up in the morning was to take my anti-rejection drugs. Some days I didn’t even shower. I just got dressed, got some coffee and planted myself in my dark corner to watch TV for the rest of the day. I was no longer taking narcotics but my depression was getting deeper. I didn’t want to see anyone, talk to anyone or go anywhere. I was becoming more and more reclusive but at least I recognized what was happening to me and once again called on the experts at Mayo. Treating depression takes time and we had lots of fits and starts but finally my medical team found the right combination of drugs and slowly I saw the sun begin to rise and could once again hear the birds sing. Life had returned to my mind and body. Life I thought was over. Mayo had worked another miracle and here I am today, optimistic again and feeling great. Yes, I still have COPD but Mayo’s expertise has made that much more tolerable, too.
Throughout this entire ordeal and for no obvious reason, I remembered Teddy Roosevelt’s quotation about “Never giving up.” I didn’t — and thank God my wife Robin didn’t give up on me either. She was always supportive, attentive, understanding and gently prodding me to go on. I don’t think — no, I know, I would not have survived without her.
I have been reborn and given another chance but I think my gift of life came with a trial, a test of my will, my relationships, my marriage and my natural optimism. I think I have passed the test. I didn’t give up but I didn’t do it alone either.
Why did I tell this story? I know that others who have had serious illnesses also face challenges, some far worse than mine. I also know, though, that attitude and drawing on all your resources (spouse, friends, family, prayer) can help you cope and improve your quality of life.
Please, if you are suffering, don’t give up. There is help for you but you have to reach out and ask for it. I still sit in the same corner every day, but all the lights are on now and while the TV may still be winking at me (I’m an old journalist and therefore a news junkie) I also write, read, work on my hobbies do things with Robin and enjoy life. I even re-started my old consulting business, a business I had given up for dead after my transplant. Hang in there friends, don’t give up, don’t give in, fight for your life, enjoy every day — believe me it’s worth it.
Bob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s nearly 2,500 member Organ Transplant Initiative and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs.
You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.
Please view our video “Thank You From the Bottom of my Donor’s heart” on http://www.organti.org This video was produced to promote organ donation so it is free and no permission is needed for its use.
If you want to spread the word personally about organ donation, we have another PowerPoint slide show for your use free and without permission. Just go to http://www.organti.org and click on “Life Pass It On” on the left side of the screen and then just follow the directions. This is NOT a stand-alone show; it needs a presenter but is professionally produced and factually sound. If you decide to use the show I will send you a free copy of my e-book, “How to Get a Standing “O” that will help you with presentation skills. Just write to email@example.com and usually you will get a copy the same day.
Also…there is more information on this blog site about other donation/transplantation issues. Additionally we would love to have you join our Facebook group, Organ Transplant Initiative The more members we get the greater our clout with decision makers.