On January 3, 2017, 16-year-old Jose returned to school after a fun and uneventful winter break. The student and active soccer player from Arlington, TX, suddenly started to feel sick: He had a bad headache, fever, nausea and chest pain. He went to the school nurse's office, where he began to feel worse. The nurse called Jose's mom, Marisol, to pick him up from school.
At home, Marisol gave Jose some pain medicine and encouraged him to rest. However, Jose's symptoms wouldn't go away. The next morning, Marisol took Jose to see his pediatrician who suggested she take him to the nearest emergency room (ER) for additional tests.
Jose remembers arriving at the ER in Fort Worth – but then, his memory gets fuzzy. The next thing he clearly remembers is waking up with a new heart weeks later.
A serious diagnosis and life-saving care
At the ER, doctors told Marisol that Jose needed to be admitted for a condition called myocarditis. Within hours of being admitted to the hospital, Jose's heart rate rapidly increased. Doctors put Jose on an ECMO machine – a therapy that uses an artificial heart-lung machine similar to the bypass equipment used during open-heart surgery – to take over the work of the heart and lungs.
Shortly after, his heart stopped and despite use of electric shocks they could not restore his heartbeat. The doctors told Marisol that Jose would most likely need a heart transplant and recommended that Jose's best option was to be transferred to Children's Health℠.
Still connected to ECMO, Jose was transported to Children's Medical Center Dallas, where pediatric cardiologist Ryan Butts, M.D., examined Jose and confirmed with Marisol that he would need a transplant.
While waiting for his new heart, doctors separated Jose from ECMO by performing surgery to insert a ventricular assist device (VAD). Jose's right leg had swollen due to decreased blood flow to the leg. The physicians had to operate on his leg to relieve pressure, and cautioned Marisol that it might take up to a year before her son could walk again.
On January 21, 2017, Marisol received the news she had been waiting for: A heart was available for Jose. Jose had no complications during the heart transplant surgery, and Marisol anxiously waited to see how her son would recover.
The road to recovery
Two days after his transplant, Jose's doctors noticed he couldn't move the left side of his body. An MRI revealed that Jose had suffered a small stroke and would need physical therapy to recover. Doctors also had to perform a tracheostomy, because Jose had trouble breathing after his breathing tube was removed.
But through all his surgeries, Jose continued to fight. He was encouraged by the team around him, especially Curtis, a nurse at the Heart Center. "Curtis was great," Jose says. "Throughout my time at the hospital, he would tell me to stay positive and kept pushing me to go forward. He was my main motivator besides my mom."
On March 28, 2017, Jose was transferred to Our Children's House to receive physical, occupational and speech therapy. There, he worked towards walking again and swallowing better after his tracheostomy. Determined, Jose progressed in his recovery and was discharged home six weeks later.
After months of missing school, Jose was excited to see his friends and return to a routine. With doctors' permission, Marisol took Jose to school for a few hours the day after he was released. At the time, Jose was still in a wheelchair because he still couldn't walk well from his leg surgery. But sitting in class near his friends, Jose says he felt normal again.
Setting big goals
Only eight months after his heart transplant, doctors gave Jose the okay to play soccer again. David Sutcliffe, M.D., pediatric cardiologist at Children's Health, attended Jose's second game back on the field.
"Jose did magnificently well," says Dr. Sutcliffe. "He scored his first goal since his return to soccer early in the second half, and then scored the winning goal with only two minutes left to play. That's a long way to go for someone who had no heartbeat just eight months earlier. I felt truly privileged to see such an amazing accomplishment."
Jose says Dr. Sutcliffe is one of his favorite physicians, and having him at the game was an extra motivation. "Dr. Sutcliffe was always so positive with my mom and me," he says. "He kept telling us it would be okay, and every time, he was right. I was excited he could see me play. He had been there since the beginning, and he's seen how far I've come."
Dr. Sutcliffe and the care Jose received at Children's Health have encouraged him to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a doctor. He says his experience makes him see things differently, and he now has a connection to others going through a frightening diagnosis. When asked how he would encourage others facing a heart condition, Jose says, "You're just getting held back. You just have to overcome that obstacle to accomplish your dreams."
The nationally renowned team of pediatric cardiologists and subspecialists at Children's Health treat the whole spectrum of pediatric heart problems, with a commitment to excellence. Learn more about our programs and treatments.
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