Just one day before he was scheduled for a very risky surgery with a 50-per-cent chance of survival, Comox Valley man Chad Dwolinsky received the heart he had been waiting for.
“There was only a 50/50 chance that he was going to survive the surgery,” recalls his wife Ashley.
“And the feeling that I had gotten from the doctors now afterwards, I don’t think they even expected him to make the surgery. However, if he didn’t have the surgery the doctors said he only had a couple months left (to live).”
Chad, 36, was born with a rare congenital heart defect. Although he’s had five open-heart surgeries over his life, he says he’s lived a fairly normal one, until a few years ago when his health started failing.
He continued working full-time as a nurse at Casa Loma Seniors Village in Courtenay until September, when he was convinced to take medical leave by family and friends.
Ashley estimates Chad spent half the past year in St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
Put on a list
He was put on BC Transplant’s waiting list a few months ago, but the chances of receiving a heart were very slim, according to Ashley.
Because of numerous blood transfusions over the years, the antibody levels in Chad’s blood are at 100 per cent, meaning his body would reject a heart transplant unless it came from a donor who also had high antibody levels.
Due to the specific donor requirements, the search was opened up as far east as Manitoba and down into the Northwestern United States.
Near the end of April, Chad was faced with the choice of having two months to live while waiting for a heart, or undergoing risky surgery to put in an RVAD, which essentially would pump his heart for him.
Chad decided to take the chance and opt for the surgery, and it was scheduled for Saturday, May 10. If successful, Chad would need to remain in the Lower Mainland for three months post-surgery for monitoring. He and Ashley came back to the Valley May 7 for two days to pack their things and tie up any loose ends.
3 a.m. phone call
They had planned to visit family in Port Alberni Friday, May 9 before heading to Vancouver.
“Well, at 3 a.m. Friday morning, May 9th our phone rings and it’s the hospital from Vancouver saying that they have a heart that’s suitable for him,” recalls Ashley. “I don’t know why or how, but I knew as soon as the phone rang — ‘this is it, it’s our call.’
“He was only on the transplant list for two months — that’s unheard of in best-case scenarios, let alone hard ones like his,” continued Ashley, adding the possibility that there was a match was unthinkable to the couple. “We won a lottery; it was like a one in a million chance of getting a heart that would work for him and we got it.”
They started packing up their car at 3 a.m. and drove to catch the 6:30 a.m. ferry over to Vancouver, calling family along the way to wake them up with the good news, Ashley said with a laugh.
After the 13-hour surgery was complete, Ashley went in to see Chad.
“His hands were no longer blue and purple; his hands were flesh-toned again, and they were warm. And he hasn’t had flesh-toned, warm hands for probably about two-and-a-half or three years,” said Ashley. “When I held his hand, I just, I can’t even explain how it felt, it was just so amazing.”
Still hard to believe
Chad is recovering well, though he says having a new heart is still surreal a month later.
“It’s indescribable at this point, it’s been a real miracle, how do you describe something like that,” says Chad. “After being in such rough shape for a couple of years, now having this heart, it’s just like night and day.
“I came out of surgery like a champ and wanted to get up and go like the next day practically.
“I think a lot of it was emotional too, like the whole thought of just having a new life and getting this opportunity, it was just so much all at once, it was incredible.”
Chad must stay in the Lower Mainland for at least a couple more months, and Ashley has taken leave from her job at Coastal Community Credit Union in Courtenay. The couple has no financial assistance except for the CPP disability benefit Chad receives.
Ashley’s co-workers and the Prime Chophouse and Wine Bar will hold a fundraiser at 5:30 p.m. June 19 at the Prime Chophouse. For $20 attendees will receive a meal and drink, with $5 going to Chad and Ashley. The evening will also feature a silent auction, which Coastal Community Credit Union’s Matt Beckett is gathering donations for. He can be contacted at 250-792-2293 or email@example.com.
Sign your donor card
Meanwhile, Chad and Ashley say promoting the importance of registering to be an organ donor is a cause very close to their heart. They urge the public to consider registering to be an organ donor, noting making your own decision about it means your family won’t be faced with making a hard decision during a time of stress and tragedy.
According to BC Transplant, nearly 85 per cent of British Columbians say they support organ donation, but just 15 per cent have registered as donors. For more information and to register, visit http://www.transplant.bc.ca.