25th Anniversary Sentara Heart Transplant Program

109 • 24 • 188

William Dunkley is number 109.
Carey McGrath number 24.
Sue Pawlus is number 188.

They greeted each other not by name, but instead by number. The number represents the order in which they received their heart transplant.

“It feels great to be alive,” said Dunkley.
“I’ve been blessed,” said McGrath.
“I’m 61 and I do Zumba,” exclaimed Pawlus with a large grin on her face.

While being able to take a Zumba class is no big deal for some, for Pawlus it is nothing but a miracle. At 49 years old, she began experiencing shortness of breath and was diagnosed with hereditary cardiomyopathy; a disease of abnormal heart muscle.

Pawlus was familiar with cardiomyopathy; it had already taken the lives of five family members, including her mother at the age of 39. “That’s the history behind me becoming the 188th patient” to receive a heart transplant, she explained. “I was blessed to be on the waiting list for only 10 days when I got a match,” said Pawlus.

Pawlus along with more than 30 other patients filled the lobby of Sentara Norfolk General Heart Hospital to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Heart Transplant Program.

To date, 356 patients have been recipients of a heart transplant. “We started doing heart transplants in 1989, but we are moving beyond that. We now care for those with advanced heart failure; we’re also involved in drug and cardio device research,” said John Herre, cardiologist.

Brooke Briggs is number 300. She had her heart transplant less than five years ago. She is one of the patients in the room who has been living with their heart transplant the least amount of time.

On the other hand, Carey McGrath is patient number 24, which makes him the longest heart transplant survivor in the room. “I recently retired, and my new job is spoiling my 1-year-old grandson, “said McGrath as he flashed his grandson’s picture on his cell phone.

Many of these patients can be considered fortunate because the “average person lives 12-18 years after a heart transplant,” said Brenda Smith, transplant educator. After a heart transplant, patients normally have to take an average of 10 pills a day to suppress their immune system. Often, other complications come and it could be rough for some, Smith said.

“It is a roller-coaster ride,” said Jack Kissinger. Since his heart transplant some 20 years ago, he said he has battled multiple bouts of cancer and a kidney transplant. He said it is bittersweet, but you have to have faith. For patients like Briggs, who only had their heart transplant a few years ago, Kissinger said, “keep it moving, because if you stop, you drop!”

William Dunkley, patient number 109, knows what it is like to keep it moving. Dunkley was the first patient to go home with a portable heart pump 18 years ago from Norfolk General Hospital.

Back in 1996 he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart. He said doctors told him if he did not have the heart pump surgery, he had less than 48 hours to live. “Somebody had to die for me to live, and so I feel like I’m living for two people. I feel special,” Dunkley said.