From the heart: The tale of a three-time transplant recipient

Tim, who had two heart transplants and a kidney transplant, with his family in a wooded area

Playing youth hockey and Little League in the spring of 1988, I started to become easily fatigued. I became very weak and could no longer run around. By May, a visit to my pediatrician resulted in a trip to the Boston Children’s Hospital Cardiology Clinic on Fegan 6 and the first of many cardiac catheterizations I would receive in my life.

The results of that first procedure were shared in my corner room across from the nurses’ station on 6 East (the cardiac step-down at the time): I would need a heart transplant for cardiomyopathy. It was Friday the 13th. I was 10 years old.

A young Tim, playing hockey, before he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy
Tim, before he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy

The first of two heart transplants

In July 1988, I had the seventh heart transplant ever performed at Boston Children’s. Dr. Mayer was my surgeon. Incredibly, a friend, who was waiting for a heart at the same time, had received the sixth heart transplant the night before.

Up until this point, aside from asthma, I was a healthy, athletic kid. As I adjusted to my new reality, I noticed that many other heart patients at Boston Children’s had been born with congenital heart problems and had been going to the hospital their entire lives.

It was a humbling observation and made an impression on me — these other kids had been sick for a lot longer and likely had it a lot tougher, so I made the decision not to take a “woe is me” attitude. That is not to say I haven’t had difficult or stressful times over the last 30 years, but I’ve tried to keep things in perspective.

Throughout my life, I often have thought about my friend Joey O’Donnell who, just months before I was diagnosed, passed away after a courageous 12-year battle with cystic fibrosis. Talk about an inspiration.

Tim, shortly after the first heart transplant, with members of the Heart Transplant team
Tim and members of the Heart Transplant team

20 years later: A kidney transplant

In early 2007, I decided to move to Chicago with my girlfriend, who was in her first year of medical school. By the end of the year, I was not feeling well. I was working for a trading company on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and began to take different routes in the morning, so my colleagues would not see me struggling to breathe on the few blocks from our office to the trading floor.

Early in February 2008, I woke on a Sunday morning and struggled to get from my bed to a chair in my living room. I called my girlfriend, who was at school studying for an exam, to say, “I feel like my heart is beating really slowly. I think something is wrong.”

I refused her offer to call an ambulance. She left school, picked me up, carried me to the elevator and drove me to the ER. My heart rate was in the 30s — a far cry from the normal range of 60 to 100 beats a minute.

I spent that week in the hospital. I had a pacemaker put in on Friday and was discharged Sunday afternoon, just in time to watch the 18-0 Patriots lose the Super Bowl — lousy ending to a lousy week.

For words of wisdom and advice, read Tim’s full story on TransplantTalk.

The gift of living donation

In March 2008, I was starting to plan an engagement proposal for our annual vacation to the Cape over the July fourth week. In the meantime, my kidneys were deteriorating, a resulting side effect of the immunosuppressant cyclosporine. My immediate family members were evaluated for living donation. Although nobody was a perfect match, my brother was deemed the “best.”

On July 3, I had a routine blood test in the morning, and by 2:15 p.m. was back in the office reconciling the day’s trading activities. My bags were packed in the car, and my girlfriend was on her way to pick me up to head to the airport for a late afternoon flight. My colleagues knew my engagement plans, and I had already shipped the ring home to my mother, so I wouldn’t have to bring it on the plane with me.

2:20 p.m.: My cellphone rings. It’s the nephrologist calling to tell me my creatinine level is 9, and I need to come in to start dialysis, immediately.

I explained my engagement plans. Spent 10 minutes going back and forth with nephrology and cardiology. No dice.

2:30 p.m.: My girlfriend calls, “Are you ready to go?”

No Cape trip. No engagement. Straight to the hospital.

Tim and his brother, following his living-donor kidney transplant
Tim and his brother, following his living-donor kidney transplant

The kidney transplant, which we thought would be months away, was suddenly scheduled for July 24. I underwent dialysis and plasmapheresis for the next few weeks, and my brother and immediate family flew out a few days before the transplant. Surgery was a success — my “new” kidney perfused immediately – but I was not feeling better.

The rest of that summer, I was expecting to get back to work, but my health was not improving, and I was in and out of the hospital. By the end of August, I was back in the hospital. I was told I was being listed for another heart transplant.

I had suffered a massive heart attack, likely resulting from kidney failure, and a second heart transplant was deemed necessary.

Heart transplant No. 2

This time around, unlike 1988, I would wait entirely in the hospital. While there are plenty of physical things you endure as a transplant patient that are unpleasant, the hardest part was the mental toll. For almost a year, I spent long periods in a bed between the ICU, the step-down unit and back to the ICU.

My second heart transplant was performed on Dec. 8, 2008, by a surgeon who had trained with Dr. Mayer, which was very reassuring. I was discharged — and and finally proposed to my future wife — just 12 days later.

My life path was forever altered by my idiopathic cardiomyopathy diagnosis when I was 10 years old. I was given the opportunity to live life to the fullest and am truly grateful to the Boston Children’s Heart Transplant Program, and most importantly, the donor families that made it possible.

Tim with his family at the Pediatric Transplant Center’s Family Celebration Day
Tim with his family at the Pediatric Transplant Center’s Family Celebration Day

Learn more about the Heart Transplant Program.

About the blogger: Forty-year-old Tim Gallagher, a husband and a father of four young children, has received two heart transplants and a kidney transplant. His first heart transplant was performed at Boston Children’s Hospital in 1988.