Heart transplant becomes source of strength for Valley author
December 12, 2012
Article by Sebastian Moraga: 392-6434, ext. 221, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Genevieve Ruth is packing.
Instead of Smith and Wesson, though, her companions are strength and will. They come just as handy and they don’t get her in trouble.
“‘Good thing I’m armed’ is the philosophy I grew up with and the optimistic perspective I had,” the Snoqualmie resident said. “I needed that to endure this journey.”
The journey began the day after her daughter’s first birthday in 2008, when her husband Nate started having what he thought were migraines.
“They were actually mini-strokes,” she said. “Within a week, he had a diagnosis of bacterial endocarditis,” a bacterial inflammation of the inner layers of the heart.
Two surgeries later, the staph infection had so battered Nate’s heart that Genevieve doubted he could survive a third one. That left but one option: a heart transplant, a shocking proposition to Nate, an athletic marathon runner barely into his 30s.
“They couldn’t do a mechanical heart because of how messed up the bacteria was making everything,” Nate said. “It was basically a transplant or nothing.”
He waited three months for a heart, until a 49-year-old woman’s heart came available in Spokane.
On the eve of the transplant, he said, he worried if once he went under, he would wake back up, the only time he ever felt that way.
By the time it was all done, he weighed 130 pounds and his muscles had atrophied. He had to undergo weekly biopsies and encountered a brief period of depression in the weeks following the transplant, once the painkillers wore off.
“The first three weeks were tough,” he said. “Once we got into a duplex and I sat on a couch, I could feel like I wasn’t in a hospital anymore and I could definitely take a breath.”
Then came months of dealing with a form of post-traumatic stress, which resulted in hair loss and a heart that felt new, but also heavy.
“There’s a gravity that comes with a heart, knowing that another family is going through the opposite of what you are,” he said. “Someone had to pass away for you to have this.”
With the gravity came some levity.
The stress led to hair loss, and when the hair came back, it came back in curls for a year before it straightened.
Years since the transplant and those curly days, Ruth has decided to chronicle her husband’s story in a book, titled “Catchlight,” available at http://www.genevieveruth.com.
“I’m a photographer, and what I always try to get is the catchlight, the twinkle in the eye,” Ruth said. “it brings the subject to life.”
She blogged throughout her husband’s ordeal, and people encouraged her to put her blog posts in a book, she said.
She picked the title as a message to the reader: Find your catchlight, some source of light and hope to keep reaching for, she said.
In Ruth’s case, she said she hopes the book brings awareness to organ donation.
She also wants the book to inspire people to arm themselves with optimism, no matter the odds.
“I actually knew well before he even got it, that he was going to be OK,” she said of the new heart. “I knew when he was told that he was going to require one.”
Nate’s heart had taken such a beating in the two surgeries that the thought of a transplant sounded a lot better than a third surgery, she added.
He’s now 35, and still runs and works out, but now needs a longer warmup than he used to, he said.
“When they do a transplant, they have to sever a nerve that helps regulate blood pressure,” he said. “If I go from sitting to running up a set of stairs, I get super-winded, more than a normal person would.”
Then, there’s the feeling when he’s in the midst of a run, when the borrowed engine he lives on is nice and warm.
“Every time I go for a run, I don’t do a run without feeling my heart beating and thinking about that donor,” he said. “It’s a pretty trippy thing to wrap your head around.”