MURRAY, UT (11/24/2009) – Being thankful is a matter of perspective. For Greg Michels, being thankful this Thanksgiving is a matter of the heart. Literally.
Michels breaks into a big smile while visiting with his former nurses at Intermountain Medical Center. “I remember the night before my heart transplant when we went down to the cafeteria and I ordered a big bacon cheeseburger. I’ve sworn off those since,” he laughs.
Michels, 41, has returned to the Utah Artificial Heart Program at Intermountain Medical Center to visit with nurses and staff who once took care of him on a daily basis. These were the individuals who, for four consecutive months earlier this year, were responsible for managing Michels' total artificial heart and getting him ready for a human heart transplant. They were there whenever he wanted to leave his room, walk on the treadmill or go outside for fresh air and sunshine.
With Thanksgiving approaching this week, Michels is reflective and thankful for many things.
He’s thankful for NOT being recognized. Walking through the Thoracic Intensive Care Unit at Intermountain Medical Center, some staff might easily mistake Greg for a healthy family member coming to visit a loved one. Some do a double take having not recognized him at first. Michels looks good, fit and trim. He takes a deep breath and walks tall through the unit, a new man with a new heart – and a new purpose.
Michels and his wife, Joni, traveled to Intermountain Medical Center in April of 2009 to complete his evaluation for heart transplant. That same month, Michels heart function rapidly declined with both his right and left ventricles completely failing. On May 1, 2009, surgeons at Intermountain Medical Center completely removed Michels' gasping heart and implanted a CardioWest Total Artificial Heart in its place.
The CardioWest is a newer version of the same heart that Barney Clark received in Utah in 1982. It includes two prosthetic ventricles, or pumping chambers, which are powered by pulses of compressed air. The artificial heart is able to pump high volumes of blood (up to 9.5 liters per minute) safely through the body. Due to the special equipment needed to power the heart, there can only be 10 patients in the United States on these machines at one time. Thankfully, for Michels, Intermountain Medical Center is one of only a handful of heart centers in the country that implants the total artificial heart.
The Utah Artificial Heart Program at Intermountain Medical Center is one of the leading center in the United States for artificial heart technologies. For the past 16 years, Intermountain Medical Center's Artificial Heart Program has been one of the most active centers in the country and is a national leader in extending lives, conducting research, and testing experimental devices that are now being used around the world. Since 1993, the program has been caring for patients and their families throughout Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Wyoming.
Michels is thankful for independence. He recovered quickly from his artificial heart implant, but was forced to remain in the hospital though he felt otherwise healthy. He was attached to a 400-pound console, nicknamed “Big Blue”, which powered and controlled his heart. He was only able to leave his room for exercise and to spend time outside, but had to be accompanied by at least two specially trained staff. Now, out of the hospital, Michels happily relies on himself rather than others.
He’s thankful for “the obvious”. On Thursday, August 20, Greg and his family were told a donor heart was available. After nine hours of a challenging surgery, surgeons at Intermountain Medical Center successfully removed Michels' total artificial heart and replaced it with the donor organ.
“In April I had only two weeks to live, and now its Thanksgiving. I have physical stamina and can do things I haven’t been able to do in 15 years. I’m thankful for my life, I'm thankful for so many things that I previously took for granted," he says.
He’s also thankful for new shoes. After his transplant, Michels felt like a free man, like everything was new to him. “I went into the stairwell just for the heck of it. It had been so long since I could walk up stairs. The first thing I did when I left the hospital was buy new shoes. I do a lot of walking now that I can.” Michels makes exercise a priority, going on three to four hour hikes at least every other day. He takes a pocket-sized GPS with him to track his mileage. It’s not uncommon for Michels now to trek eight miles in one day.
He’s thankful for family. Michels and his family have spent the past seven months making a new life in Utah, relocating from Montana to Park City. From May through August, their life was based out of his hospital room at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray. Their young children, Alex, 11, and Jade, 4, spent time with dad every evening at the hospital – playing guitar hero, coloring and sharing meals. Now they are finally living together in Park City. “Those times were pretty stressful on us. It can be difficult for young children to understand why dad isn’t coming home," says his wife, Joni.
He’s thankful for healthy food. Michels tries to minimize his medications with his diet, which might make his Thanksgiving meal a bit simpler than most, but he is determined to eat healthy. There are no boxes or cans of anything in his house – too much sodium. Same problem with going to restaurants – one meal out and he might gain two pounds. Everything needs to be fresh and prepared properly to prevent any strain on his new heart.
He’s thankful for petty complaints. Michels used to have a good deal to complain about. At one point there were tubes coming out of his stomach, making it hard to lie on his left side. There was a constant mechanical pounding in his chest and ears. Today, he takes a strict regimen of medications to prevent his body from rejecting his new heart. He experiences a bit of nausea. But he says these things are trivial compared to what he has been through. “My complaints get pettier every day – it’s great!” he laughs.
Michels looks forward to when he can return to his home in Billings, but for now he will continue to work hard to stay healthy and get stronger. “You don’t struggle with heart failure for 15 years and just forget what it took to conquer this disease,” he says. The struggle is part of Michels. It’s why he naturally continues to fight and stay healthy. This is Michels' perspective, and he is thankful for it.
"A lot of people worked very hard to save my life, then to keep me alive for four months," he says. "I'm so grateful for all the people at the hospital who worked so hard to give me back my life. For them and the miracles of modern technology, I'm truly grateful."