When Marc Bains got the call telling him a heart was available, he tried not to get too excited. After all, he had already experienced a “dry run” in January, getting all the way to the Operating Room doors before the transplant team came out to tell him that heart was not the right one for him.
So that Tuesday in June, the 33 year old Vancouver man patiently waited in his room on the 5th floor of St. Paul’s Hospital all afternoon and evening. Tests were run, final checklists crossed off, family members notified. By the time Marc went into the OR waiting area at 10:30pm that night with his wife Jessica at his side, several family members nervously gathered outside, everyone was hopeful this would be the real thing.
At that point, Marc had lived with heart failure for 10 years. He was 23 years old, had just graduated, finished a six month trip around the world, and was about to launch the next phase of his life. He said it started with a simple cold. “And then it progressed to the flu. I had chest pains, I was exhausted, I was falling asleep at the kitchen table. Turns out my heart was functioning at only 10 to 15 percent of what it should be.”
Marc was placed on the transplant list initially, but through lifestyle changes and medical interventions, he was able to regain enough function to get off the list. In the meantime, he got married, worked, tried to play as much sports as he could, and co-founded a patient-led organization for heart failure patients (https://www.heartlife.ca/). Then his condition started getting worse, and last year he ended up back on the transplant list.
His cardiologist and the Head of Cardiology at Providence Dr. Sean Virani says Marc was in end-stage heart failure. As Dr. Virani explains, Marc’s heart would develop persistent and uncontrollable irregular rhythms, or arrhythmia, “He received multiple shocks from his implantable defibrillator and had exhausted all medical and interventional options for treatment. Transplant was the only option left for Marc.”
And it looked like Marc would finally get his second chance at life. After a long hour of waiting, parked literally on the doorstep of the surgical suites, Marc was wheeled into OR 14. The heart transplant was a go. “It was a mix of emotions for sure, on top of everything. I was very happy and ready for the next phase of my life,” remembers Marc.
The transplant was a success, marking a major milestone – Marc was BC’s 500th heart transplant recipient.
This year is also the 30th anniversary of the province’s heart transplant program. Salmon Arm resident Tony Beeftink remembers those early days well. He was transplant number two and is BC’s longest-living recipient. The 66-year old retired teacher had his surgery on Boxing Day 1988 at Vancouver General Hospital. “My goal post-transplant was to get back to normal life as much as possible – to teach, raise our kids, be a contributing member of society, welcome grandkids, to live life.” Almost 30 years and seven grandchildren later, he’s been able to do all of that, thanks to his gift of life.
In the past three decades, the medical care for patients before and after transplants has changed dramatically – through improved medications, better understanding of the immune system, and targeted research. Before 1996, the five-year survival rate for adults after transplant was 65 per cent. Today, it’s more than 80 per cent.
Dr. Anson Cheung, Surgical Director of Cardiac Transplantation and cardiovascular surgeon at St. Paul’s Hospital, emphasizes it’s a huge team effort for each and every transplant. He has performed more than a third of the province’s 500 heart transplants, including Marc’s surgery. “To me, each transplant is still a miracle. That moment when the new heart is transplanted into the recipient, and when it starts to beat and give life – that never ceases to amaze me.”
Most importantly, it is the gift of donors and their families that make all of this possible. “It’s an exceptional, extraordinary thing,” says Health Minister Adrian Dix, who was at an event at St. Paul’s Hospital celebrating the milestone.
Marc is just two months post transplant and getting stronger every day. He is already asking his transplant team about going on his first trip post-transplant, and is also looking forward to driving again. He’s never been able to get behind the wheel of his ‘65 Oldsmobile because he could have gone into arrhythmia at any time. “I’m excited for the next stage of my life with my new beautiful and powerful heart. To my donor and donor family, thank you for the gift you have given me and my family. You have given me a second chance to live a full life, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.”