January 6, 2009
Homer man has new heart
Undergoes successful heart transplant in April at Rochester hospital
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Jim Terwilliger, owner of Town & Country Plumbing and Heating, looks for a pipe fitting in the back of his work van. Terwilliger recently underwent a heart transplant in Rochester.
An April hospital visit from a childhood friend renewed Jim Terwilliger’s hopes that he would get the heart transplant he needed to save his life.
Terwilliger said his friend Gary Cross came to visit at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester with his wife and said that he had dreamed for several nights that a new heart was coming.
That April 26 visit was the last time Terwilliger, who lives in Homer, saw Cross alive. Later that day, nurses told Terwilliger a heart was available for him.
Cross died two weeks later in a motorcycle crash in Pompey, and although his was not the heart Terwilliger received, he is certain that Cross saved his life.
“He’s the man who brought me my heart,” Terwilliger, 55, recalled, holding back tears.
Before the operation, Terwilliger had suffered three heart failures and one heart attack over the past six years.
The experience has since forced him to be more mindful of his own limitations.
“I never realized how sick I was,” he said.
Terwilliger had worked in 2002 as a plumber for K&B Plumbing and Heating in Cortland, but now runs his own plumbing, heating and air conditioning business in Homer.
“I was stressed all the time, worked over 40 hours a week and was working on remodeling my house,” he recalled.
Despite a family history of heart disease, he never gave it much thought until his first heart attack.
During a trip to Northgate Speedway in Binghamton in February 2002, Terwilliger collapsed with intense pain, unable to breathe.
He was taken to Wilson Memorial Regional Medical in Binghamton, and doctors said he had suffered a massive heart attack. He was treated and released, but he would be plagued by more heart problems over the years.
Doctors told him in March 2007 that without a transplant, he would not live much more than a year.
He was also told after his first heart attack that it had been “inevitable” given his health history.
Terwilliger recalled that he had paid little attention to his health before the first heart attack. He frequented fast food restaurants and had been a smoker for 13 years, although he gave up his smoking habits one month before the heart attack.
He was prescribed medications after he expressed reservations about a transplant, and went through multiple examinations, but his condition did not improve.
He was still uncomfortable with the thought of a transplant, but a November 2007 visit to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester for a full day of physical examinations cast those doubts aside.
Doctors told him that only 9 percent of his heart was fully functional.
He was placed as a priority for the organ donor list, but even when hearts were made available doctors could not guarantee their usability.
Terwilliger said nurses approached him on three occasions throughout February, March and April with a heart, but none proved usable because they were beating erratically.
When confronted with the possibility that he may not get a heart, Terwilliger said he was prepared for the worst.
“It floored me when I heard they couldn’t use the hearts,” he said.
After three failed attempts to get a usable heart, Terwilliger’s heart was replaced by that of a 40-year-old man from Ohio.
Once the heart was obtained, doctors operated and Terwilliger went to Cortland Regional Medical Center in September for cardiac rehabilitation after several months.
“Once I got the heart, it was locked in my mind how much better it was going to be,” he said. “From then it was a walk in the park.”
Terwilliger joined a group of about 18 other cardiac patients in Cortland Regional’s cardiac rehabilitation program.
The hospital officially began the program in 2006, and it is the only cardiac patient rehabilitiation program in Cortland County. More than 200 patients have been treated in the program so far.
Terwilliger was the first heart transplant patient to go through the program, which lasts about 12 weeks, said Sammy Suriani, a physician assistant.
“The idea is that over the years, people with some sort of cardiac event always do up to 40 percent better with the rest of their lives with this type of rehabilitation program,” Suriani said. “People coming out of surgeries like these are often apprehensive of what they can do.”
That did not hold true for Terwilliger, who said he felt “20 years younger” after the transplant.
When he started rehab, he had to run for five minutes on a treadmill. Feeling energetic, he thought it would be easy.
“My legs gave out after two minutes,” he said. “But what would you expect after spending so much time on a hospital bed?”
Terwilliger wrote a letter of thanks and sent it to the Rochester hospital in hopes the family of the man whose heart saved his life will read it.
After several months in and out of the hospital, waiting for a new heart, he held out hope that one would arrive. Friends would visit him at the hospital and ask how he could be so sure of it.
“I had no other option but to think positive,” Terwilliger said.
These days, Terwilliger says he prefers to take things at his own pace.
“I will not work myself into that position again,” he said.
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