At a Glance:
Hiking up to six miles every day isn’t for the faint of heart. Luckily for Chris, he didn’t have one.
“I walked 607 miles with the Total Artificial Heart, so I was really fit going into that surgery,” said Chris, who received his heart transplant after 219 days of support. “That’s very different from a lot of people who go into the transplant really sick. After the surgery, they not only have to recover from the transplant, but also from being sick for so long leading up to it.”
Chris’s heart problems began in 1999, when he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease that destroys the heart muscle over time, and ventricular tachycardia, an irregular, fast heartbeat. Although his implanted defibrillator shocked his heart 30 times over a 12-year span, Chris never let his heart condition slow him down. Despite his ejection fraction being only 20%, he continued to hike three to five miles daily and work as a lead instrument technician for ConocoPhilips, which often sent him to the frigid oil fields on the northern tip of Alaska, where it could get as cold as 50 degrees below zero before adding in the wind-chill factor.
"He has an attitude like I've never seen in anybody else," said Kathy of her husband, Chris.
However, in the fall of 2011, Chris started experiencing shortness of breath while hiking on level ground, which had never happened before. On Jan. 23, 2012, at the insistence of doctors at the Alaska Heart Institute in Palmer, Chris and his wife, Kathy, flew to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle so that he could be evaluated for a heart transplant. What the couple thought would be a two-day trip turned out to be an eight-month fight for his life. Doctors discovered his heart was functioning at less than 10%, and didn’t think he would survive the flight home.
“I was walking 20 laps a day in the hospital hallways at a very fast clip,” said Chris. “So when my surgeon told me that he wanted to replace my heart with the Total Artificial Heart, it seemed kind of drastic.”
His wife, Kathy, remembers things differently. “He was very sick at the end before we went to Seattle,” she said. “He couldn’t even walk across a room without getting winded.
Chris was not a candidate for a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) – a mechanical pump that supports only the left side of the heart – because the right side of his heart was too weak. Doctors told Chris that the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart (TAH) was his only option for survival, but he was reluctant to follow their advice. “It was a tough decision for me,” he said. “I kind of had an answer to my prayers, but it was not the answer I was looking for.”
The answer came when Chris blacked out and collapsed while walking laps in the ICU. He said it took a long time for his color to return. “When that happened, I knew that we had to proceed with the surgery.”
Chris was implanted with the SynCardia TAH the following day. Seven weeks later, he became the first person in the Pacific Northwest to be discharged from the hospital using the Freedom® Portable Driver.
Chris and Kathy love geocaching, which is essentially a scavenger hunt using GPS, so together they explored more than 600 miles of Washington trails searching for hidden treasures while Chris waited for his matching donor heart. “I thought, ‘I’m not just going to sit on the couch,’” said Chris. “I refuse not to live.”
“He has an attitude like I’ve never seen in anybody else,” said Kathy. “He’s actually my hero. He just has this upbeat, amazing attitude.”
Seven months — and 607 miles — later, Chris received his matching donor heart transplant. “I was thinking of what a blessing that would be to move on,” he said. “We were not going to be able to return to our home in Alaska until I was transplanted.”
The couple finally got back to their Wasilla home in December 2012. Since then, they’ve taken trips to Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Florence, Italy. They go fishing. They hike every day, often to search for and set up geocaches. And Chris is back at work—two weeks on, then two weeks off—in the oil fields above the Arctic Circle.
“The SynCardia Total Artificial Heart was really a blessing,” said Kathy. “With the Freedom Portable Driver, it enabled Chris to do so much.”