Heart Transplant Gives Marine a New Mission
James Williams is the kind of guy who has worked at keeping himself in shape. In his line of work, it’s a smart thing to do. A former high-school athlete, Williams served in the Marine Corps Reserve, including a stint in Desert Storm, and spent 23 years in law enforcement.
But in 2007, at age 37, he went to the doctor with flu-like symptoms and ended up with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. Williams was shocked. He had no family history of heart problems, he wasn’t a drinker or a smoker, and he didn’t have other common risk factors for the disease.
“I was completely blown away,” he says. “At first I knew nothing about the condition, so I had no idea how serious it was.”
Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart isn’t able to pump enough blood through the body. The result is that fluid backs up, or congests, the lungs, liver and legs. Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath and swelling in the legs.
After Williams received his diagnosis, he began taking medication to control the condition. For a while, it worked, and he was able to go about his day-to-day life without significant problems. But congestive heart failure progresses over time, and by late 2014, Williams felt pretty sick.
“I started having real difficulties,” he says. “I got progressively weaker, I was dizzy all the time, and I was nauseated and fatigued. I was beginning to struggle.”
He underwent surgery for placement of a pacemaker, which briefly helped, but his condition continued to worsen. His doctors at Barnes-Jewish Hospital told him he would need a heart transplant. While waiting for transplantation, however, he had another procedure to implant a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), a small, battery-operated instrument that helps the heart pump oxygenated blood throughout the body.
Williams’ recovery after this surgery was difficult. He developed a life-threatening blood clot that was surgically removed. It took six weeks of recovery in the hospital and several months at home before he started to feel like himself. Then, he says, he felt great.
“The LVAD worked wonders for me,” Williams says. “I felt better than I had for several years. It let me rebuild my strength and confidence, and gave me hope. Up until that point, I thought I was done.”
Williams returned to his workout routine, walking and lifting light weights. And he began to prepare himself mentally for the heart transplantation surgery ahead of him. In December 2015, six months after his LVAD surgery, he was placed on the transplant wait list.
“Taking care of patients with severe heart failure like Mr. Williams is a team effort,” says Gregory Ewald, MD, a Washington University cardiologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the medical director of the hospital’s heart-transplant program. “In addition to the physicians who offer care, our expert nurse coordinators and a team of support staff help manage the complexities these patients have to deal with. We are a high-volume center with state-of-the art therapies, which means we can offer many patients successful outcomes.”
While Williams was waiting for his new heart, he kept himself busy as a volunteer for the transplant program. He gave public talks about treatments for advanced heart failure and presented educational programs on LVADs. He also visited hospitals to speak to patients with heart disease.
“He really took it upon himself to be an ambassador for LVAD therapy,” Ewald says. “It’s common for patients to have some trouble understanding heart failure and the kinds of treatments they might need. Mr. Williams does a great job of explaining these things because he’s been through it. Patients really benefit from that. Before they meet him, they can’t imagine what life will be like after treatment, but he is able to alleviate some of their fear.”
Williams, who lives in Ashmore, Illinois, was in the habit of notifying his transplant nurse coordinator at Barnes-Jewish Hospital when he planned to travel. But in late January 2017, he drove to Chicago to be with a friend who has heart disease. It was supposed to be a quick trip, so Williams hadn’t bothered to notify the hospital. While he was away, he got the call: A heart was available for him.
“My brain was running in a hundred different directions and a hundred miles an hour,” he says. “I was excited, afraid, confused – everything. It was an overwhelming feeling.”
About six hours after the call, around midnight, Williams drove into St. Louis with his mom and a good friend, whom he’d picked up on the way. And shortly after that, he was taken into an operating room for his transplantation, which was performed by Akinobu Itoh, MD, PhD. Williams says that as soon as he awoke after surgery, he felt different.
“I just felt better. I felt healthier,” he says. “Except at the surgical site, I didn’t have much pain at all, and a few days later, I was up and walking around.”
His recovery continues to go well. He walks every day and goes to physical therapy three times a week, working diligently to regain his strength. He still has some slight discomfort at the surgical site but no other pain.
“I feel a little better and stronger every day,” Williams says. “I go to the grocery store. I go to the movies with my nephew. I am pretty much able to do what I want.”
And Williams is eager to express his gratitude to the family of his donor. “I don’t know much about my organ donor, but I would like to offer my condolences to the family and thank them for giving me a second chance at life.”
Williams continues to serve as a mentor for other patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital who are considering LVAD or are on the heart-transplant wait list. He says his interest in being involved is a way to pay it forward. “The people at Barnes-Jewish Hospital saved my life. I love every one of them. From the nursing staff to the doctors to the food service workers—everyone treated me like family and genuinely cared about me. I’m forever grateful. By serving as a mentor, I’m doing something constructive, turning something that started out as a negative into a positive.”