In 1974, when Heath Erwin was 10 months old, he had surgery at Children’s Hospital to correct a congenital defect in his heart. “At that time, the odds of surviving that kind of surgery were only 50-50,” he says. He made it.
He also survived the chicken pox at age 13 – while not life threatening to most children, the virus attacked Erwin’s still-vulnerable heart, and physicians told his parents there was nothing to do but wait to see if Erwin could recover.
Erwin continued to beat the odds; he finished school, started working, and became a father. But at age 30 his heart was having trouble again. He suffered a heart attack, and his childhood physician at Children’s referred Erwin to UT Southwestern cardiologist Beth Brickner, M.D.
“She kept me alive for the next 12 years,” Erwin says, adding that meanwhile his deteriorating heart condition led to more problems, including kidney failure and two strokes. That’s when Erwin and Dr. Brickner began to talk about the next step.
“We decided it was time to start thinking about a heart transplant,” Erwin says. “Even though they’d told me for many years that I’d eventually need one, it was still kind of a shock.” But he wanted to see his daughter graduate from high school, and having a transplant seemed his best option to stay alive – and to stay active. “I’m one of those people who likes to stay busy,” he says. “I didn’t want to be hooked up to machines and devices for the rest of my life.”
The UTSW transplant team evaluated Erwin to make sure he would be ready for a heart when it came along. “They really check every single thing,” Erwin says, laughing. “I even had to have some teeth pulled.” And the day after his teeth were pulled, Erwin’s new heart arrived.
After 12 years of struggling with his failing heart, Erwin spent only 12 days in the hospital following his transplant. Now, with the ongoing support of Dr. Brickner and his transplant and rehabilitation specialists, Erwin is back at work – and back to enjoying life.
“I already got 40 more years than they thought I would,” he says. “I told the doctors that all I really wanted was another four years to see my daughter through school. They showed me I could have a whole lot more than that.”