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Living with someone else’s heart: David Mitchell’s journey

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​​​​​​Photo of David Mitchell and his dog.
David's recovery includes a weekly regimen of rehab, exercise and physiotherapy. "Life can change in a blink of an eye. It's been a wild journey."​ (Photo: David Mitchell)

 

David Mitchell is clear and succinct when discussing his journey: "The heart transplant surgery saved my life and I am here to talk about it."

David, an active 40-year-old father of three, step-father and a part-time firefighter, was the picture of health when he had a heart attack in January 2015. He watched his health quickly deteriorate, leaving him in urgent need of a new heart - all within a few weeks.

"He was not at all ill prior to January, so it was all a shell shock," recalls his partner Stephanie Switzer.

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​​David's condition left him in prolonged cardiac arrest with only machines keeping him alive in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, prior to his transplant.​

Then, a series of small miracles resulted in a donor heart becoming available with 24 hours of David being placed on the transplant list.

Typically, it takes three months to recover from a heart transplant surgery. David's recovery has been anything but typical.

"Far from ordinary"

"Recovery was and has been slow. David was critically ill and extremely deconditioned following the surgery," explains Stephanie.

His surgery was followed by a series of serious ailments including renal failure, prompting 10 days of dialysis.

Having been hospitalized for four months following his transplant, David describes his transplant experience as, "far from ordinary."

A near-death and new life experience has further fuelled David's belief in organ donation.

 "How can I not support this type of surgery, regardless of the recovery period?" says David.

After his transplant, David's family planned a fundraiser in his honour. It was also the perfect backdrop to encourage family and friends to become registered organ donors.

The many elements of recovery

Dr. R.J. Cusimano, cardiac surgeon at UHN's Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, and David's transplant surgeon, explains "the recovery period for transplants involves many aspects."

There is more to overcome than just the physical recovery, he says.

"The emotional aspect involves receiving another person's organ and having to think of the donor's family, as well as their own family, and going from extremely ill to healthy again," says Dr. Cusimano.

The social aspect involves having to re-organize your life around your transplant. You can't miss your medications when you're a transplant patient. You have to adjust your priorities."

David Family
David's sister Jennifer Mitchell-Arsenault and parents Stephanie and Steve Mitchell in David's hospital room during his transplant recovery.(Photo: David Mitchell)

A full physical recovery from a heart transplant means the patient can regain their former health, quality of life and full strength, says Dr. Cusimano.

"A lot of heart transplant patients go back to work and some of them engage in physical activities that are quite strenuous. You couldn't tell most heart transplant patients apart from anyone else," explains Dr. Cusimano.

The gift of David's new heart

"Transplant equals life for me. It's priceless," says David.

"Any gift that the wealthiest person in the world can buy their partner pales in comparison to giving an organ to somebody," says Dr. Cusimano on organ donation.

David's story has resulted in 423 people registering to be organ donors through David's Be a Donor team.

"When you're signing that donor card, it's not just one person who will be receiving that gift, but multiple individuals who can receive multiple organs," Dr. Cusimano says. "The family and friends of those multiple individuals will benefit as well."

David, whose recovery currently involves a weekly regimen of rehab, exercise and physiotherapy, agrees.

"Educate yourself and your family about organ donation," he adds. "Obviously I would encourage everyone to be an organ donor.

"Life is short and precious."​​

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