“I went into surgery and came out with someone else’s heart in my chest. I’ve never felt so thankful, humble, and so unworthy at the same time. I broke down and cried. It took weeks for me to be able to get right with that.”
At 17 years old, Charles was living the dream. In 1986 Charles had just graduated high school in Georgia and was attending the United States Naval Academy where he was training as a midshipman to become an officer in the U.S. Navy. Always an athletic person, Charles was involved in wrestling, football, and track and was at the top of his platoon in physical condition, often setting the pace on long runs.
His life changed forever one day on a run with his platoon. Starting at the front, Charles started to fall back in the run when he experienced chest pains and felt as though all of the blood in his body moved to his legs. He was ordered to drop out of the run but tried again later that week with the same result. Charles went to his upperclassman and told him “something is wrong”. He was sent to the hospital on base for some tests and then sent him to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where the president of the United States would receive medical attention, to understand more.
That day, Charles was told that his career as a midshipman might be over. He was diagnosed with a heart condition called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). HCM is associated with thickening of the heart muscle, most commonly at the septum between the ventricles, below the aortic valve. This leads to stiffening of the walls of the heart and abnormal aortic and mitral heart valve function, both of which may impede normal blood flow out of the heart. Often, people with HCM can live a normal life with little to no symptoms. In more severe cases, patients are diagnosed after sudden death. Charles started experiencing severe symptoms from an early age and was given a bleak prognosis.
After receiving a medical separation from the Naval Academy, Charles was at a loss about what he would do with the rest of his life. “I was lucky to have the Dad that I did,” says Charles; “He gave me two days to feel sorry for myself and then told me to get my butt in gear”. This was a pivotal point for Charles and he decided he did not want to become a victim. He began a degree in Computer Science but “absolutely hated it” and decided that he had an interest in the restaurant business instead. He started as a dishwasher at 19 and left 17 years later as a Regional Employment Manager when he had what he started to call “another episode”.
Driving home one day from his job, Charles had a massive stroke and drove off into the median. He was transported by helicopter to a hospital with a stroke program in Athens, Georgia. At the time, Charles was married to a woman from Ontario and his kids were 8 and 6 years old. They moved to Canada to be closer to his wife’s family for support in case something happened to Charles. They found a cardiologist in Kitchener at St. Mary’s General Hospital who worked closely with the team at Toronto General. “They wanted me to get to know the folks at Toronto General so that when I eventually went there for surgery, they would know who I was and my history”, says Charles.
“HCM doesn’t get better and there’s no cure,” says Charles. “There are usually three outcomes, an artificial heart, a heart transplant, or death”. Charles has experienced all three. Thanks to a defibrillator and “God’s intervention”, Charles was saved on many occasions.
In January 2014, Charles was not allowed to return home from the hospital after a regular check-up. It was decided that Charles needed a heart transplant, a procedure he needed to prepare for by having an LVAD put in to help bridge the transition. During surgery, Charles died twice on the table and needed multiple blood transfusions. This surgery resulted in two major complications; an infection which led to a 100‑day hospitalization and near complete loss of his kidney function. He woke up from his surgery attached to kidney dialysis machine.
Charles was put on the list for a heart transplant and a kidney transplant at the same time. Charles was told it could take two to three years for a heart transplant but nine months into the waiting time, he got the call. “I went into surgery and came out with someone else’s heart in my chest. I’ve never felt so thankful, humble, and so unworthy at the same time. I broke down and cried. It took weeks for me to be able to get right with that,” says Charles.
After one false start, it wasn’t long after that when Charles was called for a kidney transplant which took place on Friday, October 13, 2017. With some minor complications, both the heart and the kidney adjusted in Charles' body and he began his road to recovery.
As a way of paying it forward, Charles shares his story with patients going through similar situations so that they too can have hope for the future.
“Every day that I wake up, I’m thankful for it. I don’t have bad days anymore. I will never give up the fight and I’m gonna hang in there and just keep bangin'!” Charles has created a website for people to view his journey www.keepbangin.com and hopes that it will inspire others to never give up hope.
For more information on Charles’ story, visit www.keepbangin.com