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John Downs

Heart Transplant - 05/1989

1989 began with fantastic news to my wife, Lisa, and me; we found out that we would soon be expecting our second child. That news was wonderful for all. However, before that joyous day would arrive our world was turned upside down when what started out as a cough ended up as a life-changing and challenging series of events. The cough was mild at first, only occurring at night and would go away quickly when I changed sleeping positions. Within a two week period, the cough became much worse to the point where I felt out of breath and started to cough up blood.

When I first coughed up blood, I immediately called our family doctor who saw me later that afternoon. He performed a chest x-ray and diagnosed me with pneumonia but added that it might be something else and admitted me directly to Rosewood Medical Center in west Houston. After a day and a half of testing at Rosewood I was transported to St. Lukes Episcopal Hospital where I was met by Dr. Edward Massin. Dr. Massin performed a heart catherization and a biopsy on Friday evening and on Saturday morning came to my room and told us that I had Idiopathic Cardiomyopathy. My reply was ‘what is that?’ He responded: “end-stage heart disease”. My next question was “what do you mean by end-stage?” His reply was that I had between 6 months to 1 year to live unless I received a heart transplant.
I had never even heard of the disease or even of heart transplantation.

This was a shock. I was healthy. I had played racket ball 18 days earlier and felt fine. I was working as a Chef. I had my whole life in front of me! Most of all, we were expecting our second child!

We had moved to Houston after Lisa graduated from Law School for her work. We moved from Tulsa, OK where our families lived and where we met and married and our older son Zach was born. I had just turned 28 and had trained to be a Chef and had started the planning process to open my own restaurant. Those plans stopped immediately and the journey of trying to get a transplant, and to live, began.

The work up began and several weeks later I was approved, on April 8, 1989, to be placed on the waiting list. From then until I received the call that there was a heart available for me, I spent more time in St. Lukes than at home. I had lost over 25 pounds between the time I was first admitted to St. Lukes until I received my new heart. My energy level dropped to nearly zero. My wait ended up being relatively short and I received a call the evening of May 7, 1989 that there was a heart available for me. I was transplanted on the early morning of May 8, 1989.

Dr. Howard Frazier performed the transplant and the recovery began. Immediately I felt so much better. It’s amazing what a good strong heart does for your energy level! The recovery took a long time beset with numerous set-backs along the way. I suffered from a rejection episode five weeks post surgery when my immune system attempted to destroy the foreign tissue beating in my chest. I was administered a Prednisone pulse, which is 3 grams of prednisone over a 24 hour period. That reversed the rejection but set my recovery back a solid two years.

In September our son Michael was born. My recovery continued slowly and over time my life returned to being more than I ever hoped for. I have lived longer with my donors heart than I ever had the one I was born with. I think of him every day and am grateful for the gift of life I (we) have been given. It has been 32 and a half years that I have lived with this heart of gold.

From 1989 until this day, I have had many wonderful experiences as well as numerous health issues caused because of the immune-suppression medications.


I am forever grateful to everyone who has helped me along this journey, especially my wife Lisa and our two sons Zach and Mike, my parents and siblings and all of the friends I have made because of the gift of life which I was given. Most of all, I am thankful to my donor and his mother for having the courage and ability to donate her only son’s organs so that others could live. I have never met her but I do have a letter from her which I read every year on the anniversary of his death. I am also thankful to the excellent world-class best medical professionals at Baylor St. Lukes and the members of the Heart Exchange for all of their friendship, love, compassion and support.

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