Tim Day never listened to the whirring sounds of the Left Ventricle Assist Device that helped his damaged heart keep him alive for the past two years.
But nine days after his heart transplant May 31 in Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, a nurse checking his heart asked him if he wanted to listen to it. He thought for an instant, then said he did.
When he heard the “flub-dub” sound of the new heart beating in his chest, the veteran Town of Tonawanda police officer wept.
“It was amazing,” he told his wife, Sherry Brinser-Day, who had returned to their Kenmore home to care for their three children.
“I wish I had been there,” she said. “But I’m glad he did that, to accept that this heart is his.”
The day after the transplant, Brinser-Day lowered her head gently to her husband’s chest, freshly divided by a long incision from the top of his sternum to his abdomen, and listened to the beat of the strong, new heart, donated by the grieving family of a stranger. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is unreal,’ ” she said, remembering the sound she had not heard for nearly two years, since the LVAD was implanted to aid her husband’s heart, which had been ravaged by an autoimmune disease.
Although joyful at the transplant that will enable them to look forward to a more normal life – which could include a hospital discharge this week – as he recovers physically from the grueling surgery, Day, 47, is coping with a swirl of emotions.
“He was saying at one point that he did miss his heart,” said Brinser-Day. “It was his heart, and although it was fallible, we’re all fallible in different ways.” But, she said, “It’s wonderful and the joy is there with getting a new heart, but there is also a loss. What’s shining through is the positive of it, the beauty of it, the joy of it, everything that’s good is coming through.”
Resting in his room after taking his first short walk through the hall of Massachusetts General without hanging on to the handles of a wheelchair, Day summed up his outlook with one phrase: “Pretty good, very overwhelmed … how incredibly blessed we feel.”
The heart that now beats in Day’s chest was the fourth to be evaluated for him in May. The Day family, which includes children Erin, who turned 11 on Sunday, Clare, 8, and Henry, 6, was overjoyed when word came May 7 that a transplant seemed imminent. Brinser-Day flew to Boston on a flight arranged by the local charity Wings Flights of Hope. Once she landed in Boston, she learned that a problem transporting the heart meant that there would be no surgery.
A second notification on May 22 was stressful. The couple was traveling to Rochester by car but had to wait in Albany for hours while the heart was evaluated, and the eventual answer was no. A third heart considered on May 28 also wasn’t right.
Then, on May 31, shortly after Brinser-Day and the children finished a late-night Skype chat with Day, who was staying outside Boston with his sister, Peggy, and brother-in-law, Dave, he got word that another heart was coming in.
“I was told not to rush but that I should start making my way to hospital for the preparation,” Day wrote on his Caring Bridge blog. “After gathering a few things together and making a few phone calls, I was on my way to MGH just before midnight.”
Brinser-Day sped to the airport. Once settled in her window seat on the plane, Brinser-Day called her husband to let him know that she was on her way. After she finished, the man in the aisle seat said, “I don’t mean to be nosy, but did you say something about a heart transplant?”
He turned out to be a cardiologist.
At Massachusetts General.
Who knew Day’s doctor and his surgeon.
Dr. Carl Turissini, who was returning home from a reunion at the University at Buffalo, “said how good both Tim’s cardiologist and surgeon were,” Brinser-Day said. He offered to let her rest, but Brinser-Day was eager to talk.
“We spoke for the whole flight, which I wasn’t expecting, but it really calmed my nerves,” she said. “He was so reassuring and so nice.” Upon arrival, Turissini insisted on getting his car from the parking lot, picking her up at the terminal and driving her to the hospital. “He was super humble and didn’t think he’d done anything unusual. When I got out of the car, I said, ‘Do you mind if I give you a hug?’ ” Brinser-Day said.
“He was like a friend, and he has visited Tim since the surgery. To me, it was another sign that things were going to work out. It was meant to be. Everything happens for a reason,” Brinser-Day said.
Day added, “That has happened throughout the whole journey, when we have had people come into our lives for one reason or another” exactly when they were needed. In the hospital, Brinser-Day and Day were able to spend a short time together before he went into surgery. “Then it was a 12-hour wait,” she said.
At around 10:30 p.m., Brinser-Day and Peggy Day were allowed to look through a window and see Day, who was still on a machine that was breathing for him. “It was amazing to see, and I was so happy and pleased, just overjoyed to see him,” Brinser-Day said.
The breathing tube was removed the next day, “and he started breathing on his own very quickly,” said Brinser-Day. “I was surprised at how quickly they took the tube out,” said Day. The first two days were rough, as they usually are after major surgery. “On the third day he started to get his sense of humor back,” Brinser-Day said.
Day’s recovery has been steady despite a few setbacks with pain and drainage from chest tubes.
“He has been doing very well,” Brinser-Day said, adding with a laugh: “At one point they said, ‘He’s the best-looking patient on the floor.’ ”
Day will have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life to prevent his immune system from attacking his new heart. The first biopsy of heart muscle showed no rejection, which is a good sign.
He could be released from the hospital soon, and Brinser-Day is now immersed in the next phase of the family’s journey – finding a place to live in Boston, where he must stay through August.
As for the donor and his or her family, the Days know very little.
“The only thing that we were told is that this is ‘a very good heart,’ ” Brinser-Day said. “I told the doctor who said that, ‘You can’t tell us that enough! We could hear that all day!’ ”
Brinser-Day said that after six months, the organ procurement organization allows the donor family and the recipient to write letters to each other, which the agency exchanges. Some families and recipients take the relationship further, but it’s a delicate process that mixes joy and grief.
“If Tim writes a letter, they will hold it on file for the family for about a year. I don’t know all the details, and ultimately it’s up to Tim,” she said.
Right now, said Brinser-Day, her overwhelming feelings are “gratitude also mixed with sadness for the donor family. I can’t describe it. I think the delay is good idea, to let things sort of settle.”
When the Day children see their father next, they will have to adjust to a change. For nearly two years, Day has worn the LVAD, which was powered by an 8-pound battery pack he carried in a vest or shirt during the day. At night, the LVAD was plugged into an outlet.
On the phone with young Henry after the transplant, Tim Day asked him, “Henry, guess what I got?” and after a few tries, Henry shyly replied, “A heart.”
Then his father asked, “Well, guess what else? Think about it, what don’t I have anymore?”
Henry was stumped.
Finally, Tim Day said, “I don’t have batteries!”
Henry was astonished: “What? You don’t have batteries?”
Brinser-Day said, “Even the older kids were like, ‘Wait, you’re not going to have batteries anymore?’ Which was so funny because I would have thought that all this time they would have understood that when you get a new heart, you don’t need all the equipment anymore.”