A gift of 10,000 days
It was the summer of 1983 and Ken Gaston, then a 23-year-old student, went from having a bright future ahead to nearly having no future at all.
An active man who never smoked and seldom drank, Ken was hiking with some friends during a long weekend in Banff, Alberta when he experienced some difficulty breathing. Later that night, he was unable to lie on his back without feeling like he was suffocating.
Those symptoms continued on and off for a couple of days, and Ken finally went to a Calgary hospital believing he had pneumonia and might need antibiotics. Following a chest X-ray, he was not prepared for the news that his heart was twice the normal size. Ken was admitted and immediately rushed to the intensive care unit.
In mid-August doctors diagnosed Ken with idiopathic cardiomyopathy—heart failure of an undetermined cause—and the following three months were filled with tests, medications and complete hospital bed rest. By October, Ken had dropped 70 pounds, lost most of his muscle and sported a long beard as the blood thinners prevented him from shaving. His kidneys and liver were failing, leaving his hands, legs and feet filled with fluid and his skin and eyes a jaundiced shade of yellow.
Out of options, one of Ken's cardiologists suggested a heart transplant, a procedure that back then had only been done a handful of times in Canada and only at London Health Sciences Centre.
"I was terrified, absolutely terrified at the idea of a heart transplant," says Ken. "I was 23 years old, and it seemed like science-fiction; so far-fetched. I had never heard anything about heart transplants at that time."
With the recent development of immunosuppressing drugs, successful heart transplantation was relatively new to North America at the time. Canada's first heart transplantation with a positive outcome had been performed just two years earlier in 1981 at LHSC's University Hospital under the direction of surgeon Dr. Neil McKenzie and cardiologist Dr. Bill Kostuk. At the time of Ken's illness, it remained the only program performing heart transplants in Canada and so, on Oct. 26, 1983, he was transferred to LHSC.
"Ken was definitely very, very sick, " recalls Dr. McKenzie upon meeting Ken. "He may have only had a matter of days left, rather than months."
Luckily for Ken, three potential donor hearts became available within three days of his arrival at LHSC. While today patients can wait months or even years on a transplant list, the quick availability of a donor heart was due mainly to the low volume of transplants in North America at the time.
Ken's donor heart was retrieved from Boston and his transplant surgery took just over three hours. The next few days are fuzzy in Ken's memory, but he will always remember when he first felt his new heart.
"I remember looking at my chest and seeing it go up and down. I could feel it, and I could hear it. I was awed."
Today, Ken is a vocal supporter of organ donation and works to educate groups of all ages about life after surgery for transplant recipients. "I want people to know that having a transplant does not make you weak or fragile. We live active and fulfilling lives."
Ken is forever grateful to the heart donor and his or her family, as well as the doctors, nurses and staff at LHSC and his family for their emotional support.
"They say the greatest gift you can receive is another day of life. I have received more than 10,000 days and I look forward to 10,000 more. For that, I thank them with all of my heart."