Transplant gives man a second chance

VIENNA – On Aug. 20, 2012, Greg McCarthy got a new lease on life with a heart transplant.

Given his condition after the heart attack that destroyed 80 percent of his heart, McCarthy, 57, and his wife Doris say it is a miracle he is living today.

In 2007, he had a minor heart attack and a stent to open a clogged vein in his heart was installed. On Jan. 30, 2010, he had a massive heart attack due to a stent collapse on the pump side of the heart, an attack also called a “widow maker.”

While he was being transported to the emergency room at what was then St. Joseph’s Hospital, he went into cardiac arrest in the ambulance. While he does not remember the events of his time in the hospital, McCarthy said he was told he was shocked with a defibrillator between 15 to 20 times. One nurse told the couple she lost count of how many times he was shocked. McCarthy said he had been told many doctors stop trying to shock the heart after three or four attempts.

“Medically they gave up on me,” he said. “They had just purchased a hypothermia bed, and I was the first to use it. It kept my brain, liver and kidneys from failing.”

McCarthy and his wife credit his recovery at the hospital to the power of prayer. While at the hospital they said a number of friends were there in the chapel praying for his treatment.

“People with the hospital were wondering if someone important was there,” Doris McCarthy said. “There were a lot of people there, four pastors and the mayor of Vienna. There were people in the chapel praying for him.”

Medically she said no expected him to pull through.

“Many of our friends are in the medical field and they looked at it medically and they didn’t think he would make it,” she said. “The next thing I knew the nurses said he responded to small commands, his kidneys were functioning on their own and the liver enzymes started going down. It was a miracle.”

From there, it was then decided he needed to go to Cleveland Clinic.

Later McCarthy learned the hospital recordings of his treatment were used at two conferences. One time it was shown to medical students to show them they cannot give up on patients and the other was at a nurses conference to show the use of the hypothermia bed.

Getting out of Parkersburg to Cleveland Clinic was a challenge. On that day a blizzard hit the area and McCarthy needed to be flown to Cleveland Clinic, however, the airport was closed and Cleveland Clinic was not willing to send a flight due to the airport closure.

“My friend, state Sen. Dave Nohe, who was mayor of Vienna at the time, called the airport, explained the situation and asked if they could clear one runway,” he said. “That got a runway clear and during that time I was on the way to the airport, my wife and mother-in-law were on their way to Cleveland and he was texting them from the airport, giving them updates on when I got there and when the plane left for Cleveland.”

McCarthy said the attack destroyed 80 percent of the muscle on the pump side of the heart. He said an evaluation at Cleveland Clinic showed that a stent or bypass was not a option.

“When we got to Cleveland it was the same situation,” Doris McCarthy said. “One percent of the people who have this type of attack survive. The doctor said ‘We did the test and there is nothing to bypass to.'”

McCarthy said the answer was a heart pump also known an LVAD, or left ventricular assistance device. It was installed under his skin, two inches above the navel and a power lead coming out of his body led to two batteries in a shoulder bag.

Doris McCarthy added the surgeons told her in his condition the chances of surviving the surgery to install the pump were slim.

“I was still pretty drugged up and they went to my wife and told her about it and she said ‘If that is what it will take to let him live then do it,'” he said.

McCarthy said the LVAD had been in use for some time but he was fitted with a newer version.

“This unit is also called a bridge to transplant. I was the first person to receive the newer upgraded version with lighter, more powerful batteries,” he said. “Since my heart had so much damage I was placed on the heart transplant list Aug. 17, 2010.”

McCarthy said carrying the pump was part of his life for more than two years.

Two years and three days later, McCarthy got the call telling him a heart had been found for him. On Aug. 20, 2012, he went in for a transplant and was released 10 days later.

“I asked the doctor what I was supposed to do and he said we had half an hour to pack and make a three-hour drive,” he said. “Of course that meant the donor was on life support.”

While they have not made contact with the heart donor family, they do know the donor was a woman in her 30s.

In two days after the transplant, he was in intensive care, in four days he was walking and in 10 days he was back home at Vienna.

Since the transplant eight biopsies on the heart have shown zero rejection. McCarthy has to take three medications to keep his body from rejecting the heart.

“There are side effects,” he said. “They give you the tremors, it makes you diabetic, causes thyroid problems and changes your vision,” he said. “You will go off some of them, but you are never off them and on some you get a lower dosage of others.”

Another problem he faced is he cannot have a flu shot so close to the surgery date. However, he said he will be able to get a shot next year.

In October they got clearance to travel to Georgia.

“On Oct. 16, 2012, my wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary and on Oct. 29, 2012, we drove to Savannah, Ga., to my son-in-law’s birthday party,” he said. “They were not expecting us, we just showed up at their door.”

On Nov. 6, they drove to Tybee Island and renewed their wedding vows and exchanged crosses.

“She said if I ever got the transplant she would marry my new heart,” he said. “We exchanged our vows again and my kids were there, it was a great day.”