GENEVA – The heart that beats in Kevin Warfel’s chest is not his own.
It is a transplanted heart, something he almost lost hope of receiving while on a transplant list for nearly two years.
The Geneva resident was born with a congenital heart condition and went through many surgeries and doctor visits in his 27 years – going from certain death to a chance at life.
But after he developed atrial fibrillation – a quivering or irregular heartbeat called arrhythmia- Warfel was placed on a heart transplant list nearly two years ago. His condition put him at great risk of a stroke, blood clots and heart failure, so he could not work, nor could he exert himself.
“I was just sitting at home, watching TV, listening to music, hanging out with my girlfriend,” Warfel said. “I was just trying to continue to live my life to the fullest that I could.”
On Oct. 27, he went to his friend Adam Fortney’s Halloween party.
Warfel dressed as a cowboy with a big white hat and was standing outside talking to Fortney and another friend, C.J. Lencioni, when his cell phone rang.
He answered the phone, “‘It’s quarter to 11 at night. This better be good,’” Warfel said.
And the caller replied, “Hey Kevin, this is Maddie [Madison] Schaefer, one of the transplant coordinators from Loyola.”
Warfel quipped, “‘Oh. I’m guessing you’re not calling to wish me happy Halloween.’”
“We have a heart for you,” Schaefer told him.
It was a 95 percent match. Surgery would be the next day at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.
The adrenaline rush was almost more than Warfel could bear.
“I took off, I ran through his garage, through another door, out the door. I broke down crying. ‘Wow, this is actually happening,’” Warfel said. “My friend had to call my dad and tell him, because I couldn’t drive home.”
‘I have really good support’
The 15-hour heart transplant surgery finished at 4 a.m. Oct. 29.
Warfel was in a medically induced coma for a few days, but by Nov. 1, he was walking around the intensive care unit. By Nov. 9, he went home to his parents.
He takes anti-rejection medication, can’t work for at least a year and cannot be around crowds because of the risk of infection.
Warfel also sees his cardiologist Dr. Max Liebo at Loyola for weekly tests – cardiac catheterization and biopsy – to see that the heart is not being rejected.
Liebo specializes in heart failure and the care of patients before and after heart transplants, but he does not do the transplants himself.
“I have really good support,” Warfel said. “This is a good thing coming from a bad thing. A good situation from a bad situation. It sucks someone had to lose their life for me to live.”
‘The transplant, in itself, is its own disease’
There are not enough hearts available for everyone on the transplant list in the U.S., Liebo said.
“There are probably 250,000 people in this country that have advanced heart failure who would benefit from a heart transplant,” Liebo said. “Only 2,500 actually get a transplant each year. … That’s 1 percent of the need.”
There’s not enough people who are organ donors and not enough donors whose hearts can be donated, Liebo said.
“If it is not against their religion or morals, it is important for people to avail themselves to be an organ donor,” Liebo said.
Warfel was referred to Liebo by his primary cardiologist, Dr. Marc Ovadia, at Advocate Lutheran General in Park Ridge.
“He had been doing a phenomenal job of keeping Kevin well, despite him having been born with a serious congenital heart defect,” Liebo said. “Kevin … had reached a point where he could no longer work. … His heart was doing just enough to support him while he was at rest – but not doing activities. He lacked the cardiac reserve to be able to do any significant amount of work.”
Sometimes, a person can benefit from surgically implanted machines, but if they can’t, they are the mercy of the heart transplant waiting list, Liebo said.
“After a heart transplant, the patient basically trades a disease of heart failure for a new disease – heart transplant – and all the potential pitfalls of living with someone else’s organ inside your body,” Liebo said. “The transplant, in itself, is its own disease.”
For now, Warfel goes every week for testing because incidents of rejection are highest right after surgery, Liebo said.
After six months, Warfel will need testing every three months, then after a couple of years, every six months, Liebo said. In five years, the liklihood of rejection is so low, this level of surveillance can stop.
Liebo said survival for heart transplant patients is improving every year, as a majority will have more than a decade of life and some will get two or three decades.
“There’s a lot of research going on, figuring out how to protect the heart transplant so they can last longer,” Liebo said. “Other research is looking into alternatives to heart transplantation, both in terms of artificial mechanical devices to … improve heart function … and to regenerate heart muscle. The hope is, in the future, we will be able to grow a heart from cells provided by the person who needs the transplant. So they get a new version of their own heart instead of someone else’s heart.”
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