Not many people drive themselves to their own heart transplant surgeries. Don Ramsey has. In June of 2008, the Royal Canadian Navy veteran drove to an appointment at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre that led to a heart transplant six weeks later.
On July 30, 2008, Ramsey – then 65 years old– received a heart transplant at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre. Here's his story in his own words:
"I had four heart attacks within a period of about six months (starting in 1998) -- I was wondering why I was so tired and worn out and draggy all the time.
I only had one that knocked me right down and out but the rest were there – not quite as severe as the one that was the final straw that broke the camel's back. And at the fourth one, that's when I was finally diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart).
The doctors told me in 1998 and 1999 that the way my heart was and the medication I was on, I would probably get ten years at that level – and they were almost dead on."
Ten years later – in 2008 – Ramsey went to a clinic for a stress echocardiogram (a test that induces stress in the heart and takes pictures of how the heart is functioning when it works hard). After measuring his base line heart function, the doctors stopped the test.
"The doctor said, 'If we did a stress echocardiogram on you right now, we would kill you.'
My heart function was at six per cent.
They got me an appointment with Dr. Heather Ross, a cardiologist at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, about a week later on the Monday morning.
Monday morning I get up and I'm feeling pretty good. Everything's not bad, so I jump in to the new car, and drive my wife and myself from our home in Port Hope to Toronto to see Dr. Ross.
She and a few doctors went over me and finally she said, 'Young man, you are going nowhere except the Coronary Intensive Care Unit (CICU).' And that was the end of it.
I was there for about three weeks. The first week I didn't feel bad. Then I started to go downhill. It was end of the third week in CICU that everything started to shut down. It was going south."
At the end of the third week, Ramsey was rolled into the operating room. Doctors weren't sure how to help – his heart was too weak for them to surgically implant a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) that could help his heart function. His chance of surviving any operation was less than 50 per cent.
All odds were against Ramsey but Dr. Vivek Rao, cardiovascular surgeon at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, installed a BiVAD, an external device that helps the heart pump blood through the patient's body.
"Once again I proved them wrong.
The BiVAD kept me going for another three weeks. With that, you're pretty much in the bed. They tried to get me to stand up a few times but you're not really mobile, you're not going anywhere.
Let me tell you – some of the nurses over in CICU and Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU) were outstanding. I have nothing but praise for those people.
Dr. Heather Ross, Don Ramsey and Dr. Michael McDonald celebrate Ramseys’ five-year heart transplant anniversary in 2013 with a special pin (PHOTO: Don Ramsey).
It was July 29th that they moved me. About two hours later Dr. Ross comes in and she always travelled with what I called her little penguins – a group of fellows that are with her on all her rounds. And I thought, well she's got more penguins with her than usual.
And she came in and we had a joke and a chat, and she kind of flippantly turned her head and said, 'Oh by the way, we got you a heart. You're going to the OR at midnight.'
We had a hug and a cry."
As Ramsey reflects on his heart transplant, his voice cracks. "It still gets me emotional," he admits. Cardiovascular surgeons Dr. Robert James Cusimano and Dr. Terrence Yau performed Ramsey's heart transplant.
"I had the transplant and I was up and about not long after that. Two weeks later I walked out the front door of Toronto General Hospital -- and carried my own bag.
I can't say enough about the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre. I really can't. It's the people – the doctors, the nurses – their attention to detail, everything they do for the patients, and the people they're caring for.
I had a friend of mine that was going to go for a bypass heart surgery out in Peterborough, and he said he was going to the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre for this. I told him, 'You could not go to a better location in the world. They have the best surgeons, you'll get the best care during and after.' He said, 'Really?' I said, 'Really.'
It's not a hospital; it is a care centre. A group of people that are dedicated above and beyond to helping the individual through their problems, through their fears, and making sure that when they walk through the door, everything will be alright."
Every year, on July 30, Ramsey and his family celebrate the gift of life his heart transplant gave them.
"I'm 71 years old. I've been through car accidents. I've fallen overboard. I've been beat up. I've done all these crazy things and lived. But I'm still here and it's July 30th that we have the big party in the backyard to celebrate the heart transplant – that I get to start over again.
Life is good."
According to Dr. Heather Ross, cardiologist and Medical Director at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre's Heart Transplant Clinic, "any patient requiring a transplant is by definition critically ill. If they weren't, we wouldn't resort to transplant."
"I want the public to think about their heart health. If people engage in healthy diet, exercise and lifestyle choices we can reduce the incidence of heart failure and hopefully fewer people will need a transplant," Dr. Ross says. "However, at present, transplant remains the best long-term treatment for patients with severe advanced heart failure. It works!"
In the past year, the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre performed 18 heart transplants. The average life expectancy following a heart transplant is between 10 to 13 years.
To register to be an organ donor, please go to beadonor.ca.