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Man’s heart transplant gives new hunger for life

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The thumping of a beating heart seemed to amplify, echoing off the bedroom walls.

Paul Edwards lay in his bed. The noise was so foreign that he couldn’t fall asleep.

For more than five years, Edwards lived without a heartbeat. A massive heart attack left him with a mechanical pump that circulated blood through his body. Instead of a beat, it was a constant whirring.

But after receiving a new heart through a transplant, the Trafalgar resident is back in the rhythm. He has recovered from the surgery and is rediscovering what it’s like to go for a walk, eat a full meal and have energy to spare.

“You don’t realize what your body does or how important things are until you don’t have it. You get it back, and it feels so different,” Edwards said.

Until early February, Edwards thought that his old life was gone forever.

At age 38, he had suffered what his cardiologist later termed a “widow maker.” The coronary artery leading to his heart was 100 percent blocked.

For the 25-minute drive from Trafalgar to Community Hospital South in Indianapolis, he technically died.

Doctors revived him, opened up the artery and implanted a heart pump.

Over the course of five years with the pump, he suffered fluid build-up in his chest, was accidentally shocked by a wire that came loose from the pump and almost died during a small procedure when a surgeon nicked an artery.

The pump kept him alive but prevented him from camping and hiking, the activities he used to love doing with his wife, Kim; his stepdaughter, Brianna Orberson; and daughter, Emili Edwards.

“He was always in bed. He was always sleeping; he didn’t feel good and didn’t go anywhere,” Kim Edwards said.

He also had three tumors surgically removed from his small intestine. Though he needed a heart transplant, it was required that he wait five years before being eligible for a transplant. Surgeons wanted to make sure the cancer didn’t return.

But in mid-January, Edwards’ situation grew more grave. The pump in his chest was forming blood clots.

His doctor, Dr. I-Wen Wang, told him that he needed an emergency heart transplant right away. He wasn’t allowed to leave Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital until he received one.

“Wang said there was no way I’d go that long, so it had to be now if ever,” Edwards said.

With Edwards’ dire condition, a matching heart was located in two weeks. The heart came from a 20-year-old man, though Edwards doesn’t know much more about the donor.

He had to wait another 24 hours after learning about his transplant, while surgeons removed other organs to be given to other transplant recipients.

Despite the wait, he was unusually calm. The night before the transplant surgery, he slept as well as he had for months.

“That was interesting, knowing you’re going to get your heart cut out and have someone else’s put in you,” he said. “But I wasn’t nervous, like I thought I’d be. I’d heard that eventually I was going to die from this heart. But it didn’t bother me. If I died, I’d go to heaven; if I got the heart, I’d keep living.”

Churches across the country, led by his Connection Pointe Church in Trafalgar, prayed continuously for him. Edwards credits that with helping him through his ordeal.

“It’s been blessings. We do a 21-day fasting after the New Year. The Sunday he found out he was getting a heart, it was the end of our fast. We had been praying for him, and here he is getting a new heart,” Kim Edwards said.

When he woke up early on the morning of Feb. 3, he walked to the operating room. Nurses slapped him high-fives and wished him the best.

The surgery lasted about 10 hours and was what Wang called the best transplant surgery he had ever done. Normally, the heart requires one or two slight electrical shocks to start pumping again.

But as soon as Wang rerouted blood through Edwards’ body, it came to life as if it was the one he had been born with.

Edwards’ recovery was similarly positive. Though the typical time in intensive care is more than a week, he was out in four days. After 10 days, he was out of the hospital.

Less than a month after the surgery, he was walking up to a mile outside his house.

“I can’t slow down. I have so much energy that I haven’t had in six years,” he said.

Since the transplant, Edwards has had his heart examined twice. Both times, test results showed no signs of rejection.

Edwards takes three anti-rejection medications, which he’ll have to take for the rest of his life so that his body doesn’t attack his heart.

Steroids also have made his hands shake uncontrollably, though that should fade with time.

But his healthy heart has also has brought back a voracious appetite.

“My wife has been to the grocery store all the time since I came home. I’ve been cleaning everything out,” he said. “It’s driving her crazy.”

As the weather has improved, Edwards has had more opportunity to get outside and burn off some of that pent-up vitality. He has started riding his bicycle again and wants to go running.

Without the electrical, motorized heart pump, he can finally get into the pool.

“I’ve got a lot of catching up to do with my family. I want to do a lot of camping this summer, fishing, all of that,” he said.

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