As a child, Darko Zlatanoski didn't play any sports. It wasn't by choice – his heart just couldn't support strenuous activity.
Now, at age 27, Darko swims regularly, plays intramural basketball and volleyball, and recently snowboarded for the first-time.
This transformation is all made possible by the donor heart he received nearly a year ago at Peter Munk Cardiac Centre (PMCC) and the Soham and Shaila Ajmera Family Transplant Centre.
"My life is completely different now," says Darko, who was diagnosed as a six-year-old with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), a condition which thickens the heart and reduces its ability to pump blood.
"It's like I've been given a new beginning."
In 2001, Darko's family moved from Macedonia to Canada. He was followed at the Hospital for Sick Children throughout his childhood, and was told to live life cautiously to avoid any activity that would upset his heart.
"As a kid, it was a difficult to understand why I had to be so careful," says Darko. "But it kept me from having any serious health events, and I learned to deal with it as I got older."
When Darko turned 18, he was transferred to PMCC to continue his care under Dr. Harry Rakowski, cardiologist and Medical Director of the HCM clinic. For a while, his heart was doing well; he was able to move out on his own and was working full-time at a bank.
Then, during a routine check-up in 2018, doctors found a blood clot in one of his chambers. Although they were able to get rid of the clot, Darko was told his heart was beginning to fail. He was referred to Dr. Phyllis Billia, a cardiologist at the PMCC who specializes in heart failure.
Dr. Billia began to monitor Darko closely, increasing his medication and keeping an eye on his health through the remote patient monitoring app, Medly. But over the next few months, Darko began to deteriorate. He was experiencing extreme nausea, his body was filling with fluid, and he had to be admitted to hospital to improve his condition.
"I wasn't myself, and everyone around me noticed that," says Darko. "I shut down for a long period of time."
On Jan. 31, 2019, Darko took a turn for the worse. He was admitted to the hospital in end-stage heart failure and learned the next step for him would be a transplant. In the meantime, doctors would surgically implant a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) to help improve his heart function while he was bridged to transplant.
Unfortunately, while implanting the LVAD, Darko went into cardiac arrest. He woke up connected to two temporary VADs for life support and was immediately put on the waiting list for a new heart.
For the next few weeks, clinging to life, he waited.
Then, on March 2, the news came – a donor heart was available.
"Hearing those words was a huge relief," says Darko. "I knew no matter what happened, I'd deal with it. I just needed a new heart."
Darko went into surgery and the new heart was transplanted – but not without complications. The heart needed some time to recover, so Darko's body was once again connected to life support to help improve its function.
Eventually the temporary life support was removed, and a pacemaker was implanted to help normalize his heart rate. But an accidental vein puncture during the procedure caused Darko's lungs to fill up with blood, and he was once again rushed to surgery to stop the bleeding and close the vein.
Four months and four open-heart surgeries later, Darko's energy was understandably depleted. Although his new heart was now functioning well on its own, Darko had to regain his strength and independence. Last May, he was discharged to a rehab facility, but quickly found himself back in the hospital after his body filled with fluid again.
Once the fluid was drained and Darko was ready to be discharged, he knew the best option for him was to recover at home with his family and friends around to support him. His Mom moved into his condo, and his parents and brother helped him get back on track. Slowly but surely, Darko began to improve.
"Walking was the start of everything," says Darko. "I made it my new job to just walk. First around my condo. Then down the street, and then around the block. Everything started to go up from that point."
Today, Darko is in a completely different place. His life has been transformed, and he is able to enjoy an active lifestyle with a renewed sense of energy. He recently returned to work for the first time in more than a year.
"I have been given a second chance to live," says Darko. "And now, I just want to live life to the fullest.
"This experience has opened my eyes. I see things differently. I appreciate things differently."
Although Darko is no longer an in-patient at UHN, the relationships with those involved in his care path have had a long-lasting impact. Dr. Mitesh Badiwala, cardiac surgeon at the PMCC who transplanted Darko's new heart, often came by to check in on Darko and say hi to his family.
"When you have a caring person look after you, there's no words to describe its significance," says Darko. "I was so filled with love, I just kept crying all the time. The doctors, surgeons, nurses, cleaning staff, everyone I had contact with – they were just incredible."
Dr. Billia says that it is patients like Darko that make her job even more worthwhile.
"It's incredible to see their resiliency, especially if they have a positive mentality and are ready to fight despite all they've been through. Darko is an amazing person and a great example of this."
Darko adds there's one other person who helped him get where he is today.
"Without my donor, I wouldn't have made it," says Darko. "They saved my life and gave me another chance. I can't thank them enough."