Dallas hospital helps transplant patients say goodbye to their broken hearts

A Texas medical center is letting transplant patients say goodbye to their broken hearts.

The human heart is amazing and mythical.

When we describe our loved ones we often say, "they're close to my heart."

When we want to illustrate love, we draw a heart.

When someone we love hurts us, we say we have a broken heart.

Here in Texas, there's a place for all our broken hearts.

There's one thing we all have in common, when we close our eyes and concentrate we can hear it -- the reassuring rhythm of life.

"It's just comforting, it's not racing, it's not doing irregular things like my old heart had done," said Ernest Jochim. 

The 46-year-old has had a long history of heart problems.

In 1995, he was living his dream of playing football at TCU, until the day he couldn't breathe.

"They had done an EKG and noticed I had an irregular heartbeat," he said. "And so they did an x-ray and saw that my heart was extremely large."

It never got better. Ernest needed a new heart.

So the high school tennis coach and soft-spoken father of two underwent a heart transplant.

Now he spends his days doing a unique kind of cardiac rehab called "industrial athlete,” working his way back to health.

"I go through cardiac rehabilitation and I'm still getting used to it because it performs differently than my native heart," he said.

As Ernest grew stronger, his curiosity about his old heart grew as well.

So he went back to the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas to say goodbye to his old broken heart.

Dr. William Roberts is in charge of the Medical Center's "Heart to Heart" program. The program lets transplant patients visit and even hold their old hearts.

"There was one young man who broke down when he saw his heart," Dr. Roberts said. "Everybody's basically curious."

Inside his lab's cabinets are dozens of human hearts, once full of life, now grey and yellow, sitting in formaldehyde. 
Hundreds more are in a large storage facility at the medical center.

The program started back in 2014. So far, more than 70 people and been reunited with their broken hearts.

"They bring their spouses, they bring their kids," Dr. Roberts said. "We've had 15 people in here looking at daddy's heart."

It's a once in a lifetime chance to look inside your heart.

Most institutions do not keep patients hearts. They're cut, sections are made, and then they are discarded.
   
But there's a method to Dr. Roberts’ heartfelt efforts to teach transplant patients.

When a transplant patient sees their former heart, they also see how their lifestyle choices and eating habits may have helped break it.

"I'm a student of heart disease," the doctor said. "Most of us who have problems with our cholesterol levels, is the result of what we put in our mouth 21 times a week."

More than 50 percent of the hearts Dr. Roberts sees are encased in a thick layer of fat.

Finally for Ernest, it's the moment of truth, as he and Dr. Roberts face each other across the lab table.

"Do you want to see your heart?" the doctor asked. "Yes, please sir," Ernest replied. "I'd like to know why it failed, was it genetic? What caused it to stop working properly?"

Dr Roberts say there a 6 million Americans out there right now living with some kind of heart failure, but only about 2,200 will receive a new heart each year.

Many conditions can prompt a heart transplant.

"The most common are blockage, the second idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy. Idiopathic means we don't know what caused it," Dr. Roberts explained.

For Ernest, the cause wasn't easy to establish. Doctors only know his heart had to go.

Dr. Roberts and Ernest go over the smooth exterior, the damaged interior, each chamber and every crevice of this broken heart.

"There are no scars, there are no portions of the muscle that are dead, but it just doesn't work," Dr. Roberts said.

Then Ernest pulls on a pair of rubber gloves and prepares for the most unusual of moments.

Dr. Roberts hands him his heart.

For a few moments, Ernest cannot speak. The experience of holding what once kept him alive, a heartbeat away from his new heart, is surreal.

"It's very...it's hard to describe as far as words, it's...unbelievable, it's unbelievable," he whispers.

It's a moment Dr. Roberts hopes will change how people take care of themselves and their new heart.

And Ernest says he's truly taking this opportunity for a new life to heart.

"It's time to close one chapter and begin a new one," he said. "It's a whole new journey, it's a whole new world."

"Heart to Heart” is the only program in the country, quite possibly the world, which allows transplant patients to actually hold and examine their old hearts. In fact, we're told some patients stop by and visit their hearts whenever they're in Dallas.

As for Ernest, he's still recovering, both physically and emotionally. 

A heart transplant can cost as much as a million dollars, not to mention the time spent off work, so his friends started a Gofundme page to help him and his daughters with expenses.
 

© 2017 KVUE-TV


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment