A grateful heart

After heart failure strikes a young, healthy man, UF physicians give him a new heart

By Brianna Swales

Chad Osburn/Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Chad Osburn started Aug. 6, 2011 the way he starts most Saturday mornings; he woke up, mowed the lawn and went about his afternoon. But when a severe case of heartburn set in, his predictable day quickly took a turn.

By the time his wife returned from the store with antacids, the pain had grown so severe they headed to the hospital in Orlando, where the couple lives.Osburn’s condition worsened during the drive, so they quickly changed their plans and pulled into an urgent care center instead.

“The last memory I have is of pulling into the walk-in clinic,” said Osburn, 37. “I was lying in the back seat of the car and Heather asked how I was feeling. I didn’t sound good, so she took the first opportunity she saw to stop and get help.”

Minutes later, Osburn suffered a major heart attack on the floor of a walk-in clinic. He was rushed to Florida Hospital, where cardiovascular surgeon George J. Palmer, M.D., implanted a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, which would manually pump blood to Osburn’s heart. He was then transferred to Shands at UF, where he was stabilized and immediately listed for a heart transplant.

“He was a young, healthy man,” said Thomas M. Beaver, M.D., M.P.H., the UF cardiovascular surgeon who conducted Osburn’s initial assessment at Shands. “It’s not often that you see someone so young. It was really a shock.”

Osburn recalls waking up a few days later and being told for the first time that he needed a heart transplant.

“I don’t know if it was the medicine I was on, but I took it all in stride,” he said. “My only other option was to die.”

Typically, heart attacks are associated with diabetes, a poor lipid profile, a family history of heart issues, hypertension or cigarette smoking, said James A. Hill, M.D., M.S., a professor of medicine and director of heart failure at the UF College of Medicine. Osburn had none of these.

“He was not your typical patient with heart disease,” said Hill, Osburn’s primary cardiovascular physician.

An average of 2,000 to 2,200 heart transplants are performed each year in the U.S. The cardiovascular team at UF&Shands sees an average of 1,500 heart failure patients and conducts about 25 adult heart transplants each year. These numbers continue to increase.

Chad Osburn received much support from friends and family.

“It’s a national trend. More people than ever before are experiencing heart failure,” Hill said. “As the population ages, as people live longer with their cardiovascular disease and the techniques and medications we use enhance survival, heart failure often occurs.”

The donor pool, however, is decreasing. On a daily basis, approximately 115,897 Americans are awaiting organs for transplants, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. An average of 79 people receive transplants each day.

This leads to yet another trend — the increasing use of LVADs and other types of cardiovascular equipment to treat patients with heart failure. Hill calls the LVAD a type of “bridge” for heart failure patients awaiting transplants. For others with less dire situations, it can be a long-term solution for heart failure.

As a result of the increase in patients, the UF&Shands cardiovascular medicine program is growing.

“We have started to accept more people for ‘destination treatment,’ meaning they have had major heart failure and all other attempted treatments have been unsuccessful,” said Hill. “These patients are able to stay on LVADs indefinitely.”

For Osburn, the LVAD did not last long. The team was beginning to develop a contingency plan when he got the call.

“The nurses sat me up. They said they thought they found a heart. But that was all we knew. My family and I waited for the team to inspect it, and they came back later that evening and said that it was good to go,” Osburn said. “I was so lucky.”

On Aug. 24, Beaver performed a successful heart transplant on Osburn, who spent just three weeks on the transplant list.

The United Network for Organ Sharing uses a computer model to match patients to donors, taking into consideration body size, blood type, tissue type, time on the waiting list and severity of illness.

“Chad was relatively small and had a favorable blood type,” Hill said. “He was also a real young guy in good health — that helped him a lot.”

After five weeks, Osburn was discharged from the hospital.

“I had no clue what it would be like afterward. I wanted to do everything right,” he said.

Thanks to the support of his friends and family, Osburn is back to his “new” normal.

“I do what I always did. I keep to a diet, I walk every morning,” he said.

But above all, Osburn is grateful for his new heart and the two hospitals’ remarkable teamwork that saved his life.

“You don’t know how many friends you have until something like this happens. It lifts you up and makes you feel like people care,” he said. “I am so appreciative of Shands — and of my donor. I want people to realize how important organ donation is. You don’t think about it when you’re perfectly healthy.”

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