David Schrock was too busy to be sick.
He and his wife Diana were raising three young children and had pinched pennies for years. He had built a hobby farm into a 5,500-acre corn-soybean-wheat operation, and was managing some 65 employees in a thriving excavation business.
There was no time for illness. Yet, here he was, in 2005, and something wasn’t… right. His energy was slipping. Doctors proclaimed it pneumonia, and they treated it that way – for three months, even as David’s health continued to decline.
On a trip to Las Vegas for a trade show he just stayed in bed, too weak to leave the room. When he got home he checked in to the emergency room at Elkhart General. A nurse assigned him to a young doctor fresh out of medical school. After a quick exam she said, "I don't know you, but you don't have pneumonia – you are living with severe heart failure and going to the hospital. You are one sick puppy."
It turned out David’s heart was beating at less than 20% its normal rate. His ticker was hitting on every other beat, like a worn out misfiring engine. David’s life had turned upside down. In his world David had been the strong one, a mentor to his kids, nephews, nieces, and employees. “There were a lot of tears shed,” he recalls now. “We bawled and prayed and bawled some more. The emotions were heart wrenching."
The doctors installed not one, but two pacemakers, and he lived that way, dutifully downing the medications, for nearly four years. It didn’t help. It got so bad he would stay awake at night, sure that if he fell asleep he wouldn’t wake the next day. He would sleep during the day when his wife could watch him.
David put his affairs in order and downsized his excavating company to a dozen employees. His daughter Brittany got engaged in March 2009 and the family took one last Florida vacation together.
The news at his next checkup wasn’t good. His last resort: a heart transplant.
"The doctor said, ‘I would like to see you on the transplant list because to be honest, you don't have much time,’” recalls David.
Finally, some good luck
Now, the average wait for a heart transplant is 14 months. And 20,000 people in the U.S. die each year waiting for one. But David was finally in for some good luck. Not more than 48 hours after he agreed to go on the waiting list, a suitable heart had been found. Surgery went well, and David went home three days early. But a week later his heart rate shot from 80 to 160 - his body was rejecting his new heart. He returned to hospital and began chemotherapy, standard treatment to stop an organ rejection.
Halfway home from chemotherapy, his transplant coordinator called with an urgent message to return to the hospital. Doctors discovered that it wasn’t organ rejection causing David’s latest medical malady; in fact, his new heart had a hole punched in it from a routine biopsy.
Doctors opened him up, drained out fluids and 19 days later, David headed home. He was even able to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding that summer – not bad for a guy who had one foot in the grave just a few months earlier.
David has been able to return to what he loves most – family, farm and the excavating business. And while this might be all the happy ending you need, there’s a twist to the story.
David wanted to reach out to the family of his heart donor. After several unsuccessful tries, he discovered his new heart had been donated by a 17-year-old Alabama boy, killed by a drunk in a car accident. His name was Jamie.
David called his father, Glenn, to introduce himself:
"This is Dave, from Indiana. I have your son's heart."
David since learned that Jamie and Glenn had been on a two week work trip to Kentucky Lake. Jamie had been flown by helicopter to a hospital the night of the accident. After a few days, doctors pronounced him brain dead, but Glenn wanted his family to come to the hospital before taking him off life support, and that took time. In fact, it took about a week – just until about the day when, hundreds of miles away in another hospital, David happened to go on to the heart transplant wait list. Talk about timing.
David and Diana made their first visit to Jamie’s family home in Alabama in January 2013. "We're all in the living room and the only common denominator was this heart beating in my chest,” says David. “I didn't know what to say but there was a lot of emotion in that room."
Since then he's visited six times and visited both parents. This past January, on a trip to Florida, David got to meet Jamie’s grandmother. “She just grabbed me and sobbed on me,” says David. “They lost a son, the least I can do is show them that I have a normal life."
And there’s one more twist. One you may find hard to believe.
It turns out David was never a dog lover. They were just something you needed on the farm, to bark when a salesman pulled in. But two years after the heart transplant, David and Diana gave their son Zach a beagle puppy for Christmas. From the beginning, the Beagle wouldn’t leave David’s side. Every so often, Diana will find David cuddling with that dog.
David never thought much about this until he learned a few more things about Jamie. Turns out, Jamie was a big dog lover. A week before the accident, someone had shot his dog, a dog that had been with him 15 years. Jamie was inconsolable. He just loved that dog, Glenn said.
David quickly put two and two together.
“I said to myself, My God, that’s where this dog thing comes from,” he says.
The heart is the only organ that has any memory of its own. Believe what you want, says David, but he’s pretty sure he knows now where his newfound love of dogs comes from.