James Ramsey sat quietly as Dr. Vinay Thohan listened to his heart. Dressed nattily in a suit and bow tie, James possesses the intangibles of a gentleman. He is a compliant patient and clearly proud of that fact.
“How far do you ride?” Thohan asked after James informed him that he returned to his daily regimen of riding his bicycle.
“About six miles,” James said calmly.
“That’s impressive!” the cardiothoracic surgeon exclaimed.
The fact that James is lifting weights and riding a bicycle is nothing short of a miracle. In March, the 47-year-old Brown Deer man went from the picture of health to near total heart failure in a matter of days, when a virus attacked his heart and his own autoimmune system targeted his ticker instead of the virus.
“His situation was very unusual,” Thohan said as he stood in an examining room at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center. “Because, from the time that he started to have symptoms to the time that his circulatory system collapsed was literally a couple of days.”
It was on March 16 that James felt like he was coming down with a nasty cold. He was congested and fatigued. Somehow, though, the symptoms felt like something more serious than a cold. His wife, Kimberly, insisted he go get checked out.
“So I went to Aurora Grafton,” James said as he smiled at the thought of his wife’s insistence. “It was kind of funny because all of the doctors kept looking at me a different way, like this is not a cold.”
It sure wasn’t a cold. James was a breath away from cardiac arrest.
“I was very afraid,” Kimberly Ramsey recalled. “When I first heard them say cardiac arrest, I was like, he just felt congested like the night before. He just couldn’t really sleep well.”
On March 18, James remained as a patient at Aurora Grafton. Despite his grim diagnosis, he was in good spirits, planning to watch NCAA basketball in the quiet of his hospital room.
“We ate breakfast together,” Kimberly recalled with a smile. “He was filling in his brackets for the NCAA games.”
Kimberly left the hospital room to phone the couple’s pastor. James is active in church and Kimberly wanted the pastor to know that James was going to miss Sunday services. She was only out of the room for a few minutes.
“By the time I got back he was surrounded with a team of ten doctors and nurses and had almost gone into cardiac arrest," she said.
James was rushed to Aurora St. Luke’s. There, doctors put him into a medically induced coma and surgically attached him to an artificial heart pump. The pump was only a temporary fix. James was placed on a waiting list for a heart transplant.
“You know, James is fortunate,” Dr. Thohan explained. “Fortunate in the sense that he got to the hospital. Fortunate in the sense that the physicians in the hospital recognized his condition very rapidly. Fortunate that he was transferred down here. Fortunate that we had the technology to support his heart while we were making some definitive options for him.”
The definitive option was a heart transplant. In July, Thohan gave James the heart of a 21-year-old and a chance for survival.
“I have the heart of a 21-year-old,” James said. “I feel a responsibility to do good with this heart.”
When we spoke with James on an October afternoon, just two months after his transplantation, and he had already resumed his aggressive workout routine. Thohan said he is pleased with his patient’s achievements.
“He’s back to doing everything that he wants to do,” Thohan said. “And if you look at the most recent set of data, the outcomes are actually fantastic with patients who have received a heart transplantation. Actually, I saw in my clinic just the other day, a patient who we transplanted 28 years ago.”
James will be on a regimen of at least two immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of his life. Thohan, though, maintains that his patient can return to the same active lifestyle he enjoyed before his near death experience.