The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

February 26, 2011

Transplant recipient: ‘They had a heart for me’

WINDBER — Tom Papinchak of Scalp Level knew he was lucky to be alive and wanted to make sure he made the most of his second chance at life.

“I had had a major heart attack,” Papinchak, 70, said at Windber Medical Center’s HealthStyles facility. “There was significant heart damage. I was not supposed to live for four hours. Then it was eight hours.”

That was in late 1984, and when Papinchak beat the odds he committed himself to cardiac rehabilitation, starting in January 1985.

January 1985 also marked the beginning of Windber Medical Center’s heart rehabilitation program, Director Gary Pagano recalled.

“He was my first patient,” Pagano said. “I think we were both scared to death.”

Papinchak was forced to retire from the stress of his job as a senior vice president at the former CenWest Bank. He committed himself to a healthy lifestyle, building up his strength and endurance.

Meanwhile, the heart disease did not go away. It was building up plaque in his cardiac blood vessels.

Despite continuing his heart-healthy response, Papinchak had another heart attack in 1988 and third one in 1989.

By 1995, he need quadruple bypass surgery.

In 2004, he had a series of mini-strokes or transient ischemic attacks, which are also related to cardiopulmonary disease.

A heart stent in 2007 prevented some additional heart muscle loss, but by 2009, Papinchak was told his heart was failing.

He continued to be treated at UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, where the medical staff recommended he apply to the transplant program.

“I was told I didn’t have much more time,” Papinchak recalled.

“On May 11 (last year), they said I would have two days to live if I didn’t get a heart.”

At 4 a.m. the next day, he got the call.

“They had a heart for me,” Papinchak said.

He called his family members and put himself in the hands of the transplant team. He was unconscious for several weeks after the surgery and remembers horrendous dreams.

The heart was flown in from North Carolina, where a 16-year-old boy had died in a motorcycle crash.

“The circumstances of the heart were perfect for me,” Papinchak said. “He was a big boy. I had an enlarged heart, and he had an enlarged heart. Otherwise, it wouldn’t fit. It was meant to be.”

Just before he woke up, Papinchak said he dreamed he was with Jesus.

“He looked me in the eye and said it was OK,” Papinchak said.

“That was the last thing I remember before I woke up.”

Despite what would seem like discouraging setbacks over his 26-year battle with heart disease, Papinchak’s commitment to heart rehab and its fitness and diet recommendations has paid off. It kept his overall health at a level where he qualified for a heart transplant, Pagano said.

“Staying in relatively good condition allowed him to have a lifestyle that he could survive,” Pagano said. “The fitness level he’s maintained allowed him to get to this point – even though his heart was failing – to have a heart transplant.”

“I always tell Gary he saved my life,” Papinchak said.

But Pagano gives Papinchak the credit.

“In his situation, people could have given up,” Pagano said. “We give them the tools to work with, but it is up to the individual to run with it, and Tom ran with it.”

“If someone has a serious heart condition and they don’t do rehab, they are crazy,” Papinchak said.

His new heart has truly transformed Papinchak’s life, he said.

Before the transplant he struggled to exercise because his heart was not pumping enough blood and oxygen to his muscles.

His ejection fraction was less than 20 percent. That means the main chamber of his heart was pumping out less than one-fifth of the blood that it held each beat. A healthy heart’s ejection fraction is above 50 percent, doctors say.

As he continues to recover from the heart transplant, Papinchak has seen remarkable changes throughout his body.

His hair is returning on his head and legs, where it disappeared over the years. He has been told it could be simply improved blood flow that sparked the growth.

But it is new energy that has been the most welcome change, he said.

“Gary says, before my heart had to keep up with my body,” Papinchak said. “Now my body has to keep up with my heart.”

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