Harry Janssen (ASHI Canadian Certified Inspector) went from his own heart to an artificial one to a donated heart in the course of a year.
Excerpted and reprinted with permission, Joanne Shuttleworth, Guelph Mercury Newspaper (Dec. 23, 2006).
Harry Janssen feels like he’s been to Oz and back, and like Dorothy’s travel buddies, he’s come through with wisdom, courage and heart.
The wisdom and courage came from facing death square in the face. Twice.
The heart came courtesy of surgeons at Toronto General Hospital. Also twice.
But Janssen’s story is not just about medical miracles, although they factor heavily in his telling of the tale. It’s also about faith, hope and love.
As Janssen and his wife, Sharon McLean, settled in on the couch in their living room, there was much laughter and good-natured barbs.
“We think his new heart is from a woman,” McLean said. “He’s so sensitive now. And he’s gone crazy baking meat pies.”
Janssen had congestive heart failure 12 years ago, a condition likely caused by a virus in his youth and one that was controlled by medication. But in February and then again in March this year, Janssen passed out at the wheel of his car because of an irregular heartbeat.
In May, he saw his cardiologist, who warned him the medication wasn’t working anymore “and to get my head around having a heart transplant,” Janssen said.
On the Victoria Day weekend, he was rushed to Guelph General Hospital and then airlifted to Toronto General. The left side of his heart, his liver and kidneys were shutting down.
“The doctors called the family in,” said McLean. “They told us it didn’t look good.”
But staff at the Toronto hospital, which specializes in cardiac care, managed to stabilize Janssen’s condition, although it took nearly three weeks to do it. By then, he had already been placed on a heart transplant waiting list.
In 2001, the HeartMate I was first used in Canada as a temporary device to keep patients alive while they wait for a heart transplant.
It has a pump and valves that work much like a human heart, although the device is attached outside the body and requires a battery pack to keep it running.
Two years ago, an upgraded HeartMate II was developed. Rather than a pump and valve system, the new device has a propeller that pushes blood at a rate of between 9,000 and 11,000 revolutions per minute.
Toronto General was expecting delivery of its first HeartMate II, but it was touch and go whether it would arrive on time for Janssen.
Janssen was scheduled for the implant on June 8, but developed a bladder infection that pushed back the surgery. But by June 13 — lucky 13 for the Janssen/McLean household — he was well enough for the implant. And the HeartMate II had arrived.
Toronto’s CityPulse News featured Janssen as the ‘man without a pulse’ because, with a propeller rather than a pump in the device, Janssen had no pulse.
And on Nov. 23, McGill implanted the first device in a patient who will not have a subsequent heart transplant.
Patients are still attached to a battery pack and that imposes some restrictions — no swimming, no showers and no traveling far from a battery charger.
Janssen left Toronto General on June 29, wearing his heart on his sleeve — and in the battery-powered device strapped to his chest. He was looking forward to living a little while he waited for a suitable human heart.
But he was scarcely settled back home when he broke out in hives on his neck and face. And a week later, he was rushed to Guelph General with a brain hemorrhage. The local hospital sent him back to Toronto for more specialized care.
He was unconscious during that time. He got pneumonia from being on a ventilator. He suffered a stroke.
“Other than that, it was like a picnic,” he joked.
It was a prolonged, exhausting ordeal for his family, but on Aug. 29, he was sent home. And on Oct. 18, he received the call he’d been waiting for since May.
There was a heart.
As it turned out, the heart went to a 25-year-old Toronto man. Janssen said he didn’t mind. He’d met this patient during one of his many stays in Toronto and liked him.
“I wanted him to get the heart first,” Janssen said.
In the meantime, McLean said she noticed a rash while changing her husband’s dressing. They headed back to Toronto General, where doctors decided to admit him while they waited for test results.
“The rash turned out to be negative, but they discovered he had a blood infection,” McLean said. “We thought, what next?”
In a strange way, it turned out to be a good thing.
Janssen was given intravenous antibiotics and the infection was under control when the greatest news arrived.
There finally was a human heart. For him.
The surgery was done Oct. 25 and his surgeon, Dr. Robert James Cusimano, said Janssen responded very well.
“When he first came to us, he was in terrible shape,” Cusimano said. “The device (the HeartMate II) took him from death’s door to feeling well. That’s the advantage of the device. It buys time so the body can get stronger.
“By the time of the transplant, Harry was in good shape.”
He went under the knife at 3:15 p.m. and was rolled into the intensive care unit three hours, 30 minutes later.
By 10:30 p.m., the ventilator was taken out and by 8 a.m. the next day, “14 hours later, he was asking for coffee,” McLean said.
On Nov. 3, he finally went home.
Sitting in his living room, Janssen is now the picture of health. He lost 30 pounds through the ordeal, but has
already gained back 20.
His doctors have told him to lay low for a while, but Janssen has never been one to sit around. He’s anxious for life to get back to normal and looks forward to getting back to work. He was a home inspector who now teaches to the trades at Humber College.
For the rest of his life, he’ll have to take anti-rejection drugs along with medication to reduce the side effects of those drugs. Stomach ulcers, pneumonia, infection, blood clots, blood pressure and cholesterol levels will always be a concern.
And the anti-rejection drugs will affect his immune system, so even the common cold could become a killer. He’ll forever be dancing the line between protecting his immune system and fighting rejection.
But between the mechanical heart and his real one, “I much prefer the transplant,” he said. “I’d rather take pills every day than have to plug myself in.”
Dr. Cusimano agreed that Janssen’s attitude had a big role to play in his recovery. He noted that transplant recipients often become depressed knowing that the organ donor died so they could live.
“Everybody thinks about that,” Cusimano said. “But the donor would have died anyway. What’s important to remember is that a family saw through their own tragedy and let their loved one live on through their donation. It truly is the greatest, most selfless gift.”
Editor’s note: Several ASHI members asked that we share this story with readers.