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Steve Hammond (right) underwent a heart transplant in January 2013 after his heart was damaged by a genetic heart condition. Steve and his wife, Diane, are grateful for the support of friends and family during his recovery. (Kim Ukura/Sun Tribune)

Steve Hammond is grateful for his new heart

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MORRIS – On Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013 Morris resident Steve Hammond was sitting in the intensive care unit at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis waiting for a new heart.

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At 10 a.m., doctors told him a heart was available. Twelve hours later, Hammond was in surgery.

A day later, Hammond was up and walking around with a new heart and without the chest pain and shortness of breath that had been a persistent presence since he was diagnosed with a genetic heart condition in 2008.

Getting a diagnosis

Steve and his wife, Diane, moved to Morris almost 35 years ago when Steve took a job with the Morris Police Department. After five years with the MPD, he was hired with the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office where he worked until he retired from full time duty in 2000.

In 2008 doctors noticed some issues during a preoperative physical and referred Hammond to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in the Twin Cities, home of the Minneapolis Heart Institute.

Doctors there diagnosed him with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a genetic condition where the cells of the heart muscles enlarge and thicken the muscles of the heart. This shrinks the chambers of the heart, making it difficult for the heart to pump enough blood to keep the rest of the body satisfied.

HCM is a common cause of sudden cardiac arrest, especially in young athletes, who work their heart too hard without knowing there is a problem. Many other people live long, healthy lives without exhibiting any symptoms.

At the time of his diagnosis, Hammond’s doctors recommended a wait and see approach – frequent monitoring, but nothing more drastic unless his condition worsened.

Sand in a backpack

And it did get worse, but so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. 

“Imagine you had a backpack you carried around all the time and every day you take a spoon of sand and put it in your backpack,” Hammond explained. “You start out and there’s no weight, there’s nothing there. You keep putting that sand in there until one day you realize this is heavy. … It was so gradual that it wasn’t a single event that said you’re in trouble.”

Hammond continued working part time until March 2012, when his symptoms – particularly chest pain and shortness of breath – reached a point where they couldn’t be ignored anymore. He returned to Abbott Northwestern for a series of tests, assuming that doctors would just “give me a pill and send me home.”

Instead, Dr. Barry Maron walked into the exam room and told the Hammonds that Steve’s heart was shot and they would need to meet with the transplant team immediately.

“The transplant team said transplant was inevitable, but they didn’t know when,” Hammond said.

Keeping it going

In order to “keep it going” for as long as possible, the Hammond’s implemented some “cardiac care” measures into their daily lives. One of the biggest changes was eliminating nearly all sodium from their diet.

“It was a real challenge because everything in the world, if it’s in a box or in a can, it has too much sodium for you – that’s not just for me, that’s everybody,” said Hammond.

“I didn’t have anything else to do and I like to cook, so everything we made we made from scratch. If we wanted ketchup we made it, if we wanted barbeque sauce we made it. I made my own bread.”

At the same time, the Hammond’s kept up many of their normal activities, including camping with their grandchildren over the summer. Hammond also had a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted in August to monitor his heart rate and help in the case of sudden cardiac arrest.

“I was fortunate, I never got jolted, but it did show some glitches along the way.”

Getting on the list

By January 2013, Hammond’s health was declining rapidly and he was hospitalized again. His application to formally be put on the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) waiting list was approved on Jan. 6. On Jan. 10 Hammond was transferred into the intensive care unit and became a top priority for a new heart.

“They said I would not leave the ICU until I had a heart transplant,” Hammond said.

The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute estimates that about 3,000 people in the United States are on the waiting list for a heart transplant on a given day. About 2,000 hearts are available each year. The wait time on the transplant list varies, and depends on the recipient’s blood type and condition.

Hammond’s doctors told him the wait could be three or four months, perhaps longer, for a heart that was the right blood type and size. Hammond and his family settled in for an anxious wait.

Transplant

Hammond’s time in the ICU ended up being much shorter than anyone expected.

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 30 Hammond was notified that a heart was available. Diane and his family members had time to visit him in the hospital before surgery that evening.

“It was a pretty emotional day,” but Hammond said he was calm going into surgery because nurses had gone over the entire process for the transplant and recovery in detail several times.

“When it got to that point I had a very good relationship and was very confident with the doctors who were taking care of me,” Hammond said.

“When it got to the point that they put me on the gurney and wheeled me away, I was content. I accepted that there were a lot of things that can go wrong and if it did go wrong, that’s what God wants for me. Fortunately, he didn’t want me then.”

From 10:30 that night until 4:30 the next morning, Hammond was in surgery. By Friday morning he was up walking around the ICU with his new heart and without the chest pain and breathlessness that has been a constant before surgery.

“Within a few weeks I was able to get around pretty good,” said Hammond. “Within a couple months I was doing household chores and walking. But six months I felt better than I had prior [to surgery].”

Hammond was released from the hospital on Feb. 8. He and Diane stayed with family in the Twin Cities to be close to Abbott Northwestern for tests and follow up. They returned to Morris at the beginning of March to continue his recovery in earnest.

A bump in the road

The primary concerns shortly after a heart transplant are rejection and infection. Transplant patients take medicine to suppress the immune system so it won’t reject the new organ. These immunosuppressants make it more likely the patient could get an infection or other illness.

“When they put that heart in there, it’s basically a foreign object to your body so your body wants to kill it off and get rid of it,” said Hammond. “You have to take medication to tell your body, ‘Don’t do that!’”

After surgery, Hammond estimated he was taking 15 different medications, some multiple times a day, but that regimen has been slowly decreasing.

Hammond’s recovery went well through the spring and summer. He even returned to work for a short time, but he experienced a “bump in the road” last fall when he contracted fungal pneumonia.

Now that the illness has been diagnosed he is on the slow road to recovery again.

“I’m doing good now – they told me I don’t have to live in a bubble now, just stay away from sick people,” said Hammond.

Living a life

Abbott Northwestern holds a picnic each summer for transplant recipients and hospital staff. At the picnic, Hammond has met recipients who have lived more than 25 years with a new heart – “If I make it anywhere close to that, that’ll be old enough.”

In the long term, doctors will carefully monitor Hammond’s heart as well as watch out for other conditions like artery diseases and skin cancer.

Personally, Hammond said he hopes to go back to work part time doing court security for the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office. Hammond said he and his family are also grateful for all the help and support they received from friends, family and neighbors during his illness.

At one visit a few months after his transplant, one of Hammond’s doctors offered him a different perspective on his life after the transplant: “She told me, ‘We do transplants so you can have a life, not to keep you alive’ – I thought that was a pretty good way to put it.”

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Kim Ukura is the editor of the Morris Sun Tribune. 

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