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"I almost lost my best friend," says 14-year-old Jessica Lierman as she recalls the turbulent years leading up to her father, Matt Lierman's, heart transplant.
Matt was diagnosed with congestive heart failure six years ago when he was 34 years old. Jessica was only eight at the time.
"It was scary," she says. "It was like – what's going to happen next?"
The long road to transplant
A cardiomyopathy led to Matt's heart failure.
"My heart was enlarged," he explains. "It never shrunk back to its original size – the damage was done and it wasn't going back."
For as long as he could, Matt tried to maintain his active lifestyle. His favourite activities included playing sports with his three children – Jess, her younger sister Lily and her older brother Tyler. But the smallest bout of exercise would come with a cost.
"Imagine running around with your chest compressed so that it's hard to get a breath in," he explains. "Running around was like having a belt pulled around your chest."
The activity dwindled as his heart failure triggered a series of complications. Over the following six years, Matt would have two defibrillators, two left ventricular assist devices (LVADs) and one right ventricular assist device (RVAD) implanted to regulate his heartbeat and help his heart function optimally.
But the challenges multiplied.
"I had a spreadsheet of all the complications so the clinical fellows could keep track," he says. At one point, the RVAD and LVAD were operating at the same time, making Matt a dual-device patient.
"The only reason I was alive was because of the RVAD and the LVAD. Otherwise I would have died ."
Matt was put on the heart transplant list near the end of 2013, just as his natural optimism was slowly fading.
"When I was lying in that hospital bed, dying, it was the small, trivial things I missed," he says. "I wanted to go to the bathroom by myself, I wanted to have a shower, I wanted to get up and go to the sink and brush my teeth. I wanted to actually be able to hug my kids without it being a side hug. I wanted to go back out on the ice with both my girls and walk with my wife again."
It became routine for his family to make the long drive from Goderich, ON to visit him.
"I have that trip memorized. It's imprinted into my brain because we did it so many times," Jessica says.
Then, at the end of January 2014, Dr. Heather Ross, Director of the Ted Rogers Centre of Excellence in Heart Function at Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and Medical Director of the Cardiac Transplant Program at TGH, told Matt a donor heart was available.
"The day we found out he was getting a heart transplant, we thought, 'let's get there as fast as we can – we have to see him before he goes in,'" Jessica recalls. "I don't remember half of the drive; it was just staring out the window, hoping that the hospital building would pop up."
Matt received his transplant on January 31, 2014 and managed to stand up the same day – for the first time in months, he could stand on his own.
"It used to take four people to take me for a walk. When I stood up, I had all these people," he says. "Standing up after transplant was like being released from a tiny little cage.
"It was freedom."
Surpassing limits everyday
Since his heart transplant, Matt has been able to do what he loves most – spend time with his wife and children.
"At any given time of the day, there's something good happening," he says with a smile. "It's just do we choose to actually stop and look at it – and I do."
Matt is back to coaching Jessica's ringette and field hockey teams. Most recently, their field hockey team swept up first place at a national competition.
"Ever since Jess was old enough to walk – and probably before that – I've taken her with me wherever I go," he says. Thanks to his heart transplant, he can continue to support his children every day.
"Somebody was kind enough to donate that heart to allow me to live," he says. "When I get up in the morning I want to make sure that I do everything that I can to pay back 100 per cent what that family is helping me to do. That's the best way to thank them."
To sign up to be an organ donor, click here:
To learn more about Dr. Heather Ross’ 2014 trek to Bhutan, visit: