‘I walked out of the hospital, feeling the sun on my face for the first time in 6 months.’: Heart transplant recipient becomes cardiologist, gets to ‘be on both sides of the stethoscope’

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“My story really begins when I was twelve years old. At that time, I was playing a lot of competitive soccer and was on three different teams. I was young and naïve, so I felt like I would probably become a professional soccer player one day. At the age of eleven I started to struggle with breathing when I would really exert myself playing sports. I initially was diagnosed with exercise induced asthma and was prescribed three inhalers. I would use these inhalers regularly but my struggles continued, and even worsened as time went on.

I remember being in middle school, which for us was just seventh and eighth grade. As a seventh-grade student I was given the opportunity to play on the team and got many minutes of play time despite my struggles. I was so proud of this opportunity and did not realize at the time it would be one of the last games I would get to play on a competitive team.

group photo from a youth boys soccer team
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

I was at my yearly physical exam and my parents and I were telling the doctor about my breathing and fatigue with sports. He listened closely to my heart. He was concerned he may hear a murmur. Due to my problems with endurance and now this murmur, he referred me to a pediatric cardiologist. Soon after this appointment I found myself in the pediatric cardiologist office having an echocardiogram. At the end of the appointment, my parents and I went into her office and she told me I had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It was at this time competitive sports would have to end and with it, my dream of professional soccer. I likely would never have become a professional athlete, just given the odds of that happening, but like I said, I was twelve and naïve and this crushed my dreams. At the time, soccer was my entire life and quitting would change the trajectory of my future.

I tried to pick up the sport of golf, a sport that would not cause me further cardiac problems. I went from a sport I was very talented at, to one I was terrible at, and I did not have the patience to continue with it. I did, thankfully, move forward and have a mostly normal childhood. One event that stands out is when I was fourteen and the thickness of my heart muscle had grown to a point where they recommended an automatic implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (AICD).

group photo from a youth boys golf team
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

I underwent that procedure early in my freshman year of high school and remember having a lump in the upper left portion of my chest I really didn’t want to have people see. It led to me being very shy during pool parties. I would end up rushed to the hospital a couple times during high school, the most notable being when my new AICD decided to fire multiple times.

My friends and I had decided to go out deep into the woods and play paintball. For whatever reason, likely an adrenaline rush, my heart rate hit the threshold for my AICD to shock me. It would go on to shock me 9 times in a row. I remember intense pain and just screaming as my friends came running. Since we were deep in the woods it took numerous firemen lifting me on a stretcher to get me out of there. A quick settings change to my AICD and luckily I never had to endure that again.

The rest of high school was mostly less eventful from a cardiac standpoint. As I entered high school, we were given the tests that help decide what you want to be when you grow up. At this point, I started to idolize my pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Heller, and began the process of trying to become a cardiologist

man at his desk during his cardiology fellowship
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

I applied to multiple colleges, and decided to attend St. Michael’s College in Vermont to obtain a biology degree with all the pre-med requirements. Thankfully, I was able to go through college without any major problems with my heart. As college went on though, my symptoms continued to worsen. It got to a point when even walking up a single staircase would lead to me needing to take a break, as I was significantly out of breath.

After graduation, I was in the process of trying to become a paramedic, as I wanted to get some hands-on experience before trying to get into medical school. I had a follow-up appointment with my pediatric cardiologist, who I was still seeing, and discussed with her the symptoms I was having. She was concerned and decided it would be best to see a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy specialist at Tufts Medical Center.

Having completed my biology degree, I felt I was knowledgeable about this subject and had done some research. I felt the likelihood would be a procedure to give me better blood flow through my heart and I would get on with my life. I unfortunately was sadly mistaken and instead, I was informed my heart condition had gotten so severe my best hope for any semblance of a good outcome would be a heart transplant.

I was gutted by this news. I remember just sitting there, looking out the window crying. I had hopes of applying to medical school and trying to become a paramedic, and all of that would need to be put on hold as I had gotten too sick. I needed to be close by if a heart were to become available. After over a year of being on the transplant list, my symptoms continued to worsen. I would get short of breath just from eating large meals. There came a time when I needed to be hospitalized until a heart became available. I decided to remain hospitalized at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut to be close to home. 

man waits in the hospital holding an iv pole for a heart for transplant
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

In the end, I would spend 166 days living in the cardiac intensive care unit before my new heart would be found. During this time, I remained relatively stable from a cardiac standpoint, but I was trapped and this played a heavy toll on my mental health. I was not allowed outside, I was not given the opportunity to shower, and my movement was limited to walks around the nurses’ station with my IV pole.

man stands in hospital wing during a hospital stay as he awaits a heart for transplant
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

I decided to take up blogging to try and pass the time. I started a blog called ‘Tales From The 10th Floor,’ as that is where my room was. I shared what it was like to be in my twenties stuck in a hospital for that long. Some of the things that stuck out during this time period, other than the daily monotony, was the kindness of the nursing staff, my 24th birthday, Christmas with my family, and finally, the day I was told a heart was available.

man lays in his hospital bed right before going in for a heart transplant
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

The nurses would spend lots of time with me, talking, playing games, and most importantly, bringing me food that was much better than the hospital food. My 24th birthday was one to remember for not only being in the hospital, but also because I had a birthday cake with candles that were not allowed to be lit. Christmas was tough because my family was with me and we all had to cram into my room to have a Christmas dinner. The joy that normally accompanies Christmas just was not there. When a nurse came in to tell me a heart was available, I was overwhelmed. I had so many emotions all at once. I was sad at the passing of my donor, scared for the upcoming surgery, relieved to finally leave the hospital one day, and excited to try and get on with my future.

man holds a heart shaped pillow after his heart transplant surgery
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

I was almost numb because there were so many emotions all at once. I found out at night, but the surgery wasn’t until the morning. I could barely sleep, so instead I was blogging at two in the morning. I still remember the title of the blog was ‘It’s Time,’ and although I meant time for surgery, it really was time to embark on the new chapters of my life.

man who received a heart transplant right after surgery
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

Ten days after surgery, I was able to walk out of the hospital. I remember the feeling of the warmth from the sun on my face for the first time in six months. I took the time to heal and rehab, but I was impatient and needed to get on with my life.

man who received a heart transplant in bed a few days after surgery
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno
man who received a heart transplant sitting in the car leaving the hospital after surgery
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

Seven months after my surgery, I went and attended a one year graduate school program to help bolster my resume, as I hoped to still attend medical school. Two years after my transplant, I sat down in my first class of medical school. The heart transplant was the greatest thing to ever happen to me. It has allowed me to achieve my dreams while feeling healthier than I ever recalled with my old heart. I have had some minor bumps in the road since the transplant, but nothing that has hindered my life very much. I went through four years of medical school with a new sense of purpose and was in good health. I attended medical school in Erie, Pennsylvania.

man who received heart transplant stands with his medical school diploma
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

In order to become a cardiologist, I would first have to match into an internal medicine residency. I was lucky enough to match into residency at the University of Massachusetts-Baystate in Springfield, Massachusetts and got to come back home to the east coast. I loved getting the chance to be a doctor, and as I like to say, be on both sides of the stethoscope as both patient and physician. 

Man in his residency for cardiology takes a photo with his grandparents
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

Medical school and residency were both very taxing on my body, and I feel without my new heart, I may not have been able to do it. I have always felt honored to receive the gift of life through organ donation and I take that into my job daily. I feel like I bring an honest approach to how I interact with my patients, since I know what they are going through. I don’t like to hide how tough it is.

The field of cardiology is very difficult to get into, but I was able to excel in residency using my own experience to guide my patient care. I feel lucky and humble that I was able to match into cardiology again at the University of Massachusetts-Baystate. Now that I am in the field of cardiology, I really am living out my dream I had when I was fourteen. My experiences have only allowed me to connect to my patient’s that much more now that I am in this specialty. I hope they can feel how much I empathize with them and the effort I put into making sure they are getting the best care.

Man speaks at Hartford Hospital's 50 years of transplant celebration
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

My experience through all of this led me to want to become a physician and follow in my doctors’ footsteps to become an Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant Cardiologist. Although I would have never chosen this path, I now embrace it and use my experience to help in my approach to patient care. I have been through numerous procedures and situations as a patient that have allowed me to empathize greatly with my patients. This has allowed me to discuss experiences with much greater detail and personalization than most other physicians are able to, which allows for an amazing relationship with my patients that I cherish.

man poses with parents at his white coat ceremony for medical school
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

I am so thankful for the physicians and nurses that have cared for me and allowed me to reach my career goals, and for the physicians now that are my colleagues and continue to teach me more and more about cardiology. I hope to use my position as a cardiologist who has also been through a heart transplant to continue to connect with my patients on a personal level and use any opportunity I get to share my story and encourage everyone to sign up to be an organ donor.”

cardiologist working in the cardiac stress lab
Courtesy of Dr. Colby Salerno

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Dr. Colby Salerno of Glastonbury, Connecticut. You can follow his journey on Instagram and on his podcastSubmit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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