PEORIA — Everyone thought COVID-19 was the cause when 23-year-old John Wlodarchak ended up in OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in April 2020 suffering from heart failure.
Wlodarchak, who lives in Mendota, had always been healthy. Just the week before he started having flu-like symptoms after he had run four miles, something he did regularly as a former high school cross-country runner. But COVID-19 was not the cause — test after test came back negative for COVID-19 and other viruses that can damage the heart.
“We may never be able to prove what happened to John. The doctors all said it looked like COVID, but who knows, we may never know. The timing was pretty ironic, that everything happened when the world was shutting down with the COVID,” said John’s mother, Carol Wlodarchak, on March 24 while sitting next to her son, who was home and doing well after a heart transplant Feb. 27.
John is the first heart transplant patient at OSF St. Francis Medical Center since the program shut down in 2007. Though OSF’s heart transplant program had run successfully since 1987, by 2007 a trend of insurance companies pushing patients to large metro medical centers for specialty services had taken a toll on the program, said Dr. Barry Clemson, a cardiologist and heart transplant and heart failure medical director for OSF.
“Over time our ability to transplant patients dwindled because some of those private insurance companies dropped off and no longer had contracts with OSF,” said Clemson. “It was really a volume issue.” By the time the program closed, the number of patients receiving heart transplants at OSF St. Francis had dropped to single digits from an average of 15 to 20 a year when the program was at its height.
Clemson, who had been medical director of the program starting in 1995, left the area, only to return in 2015 when leaders at OSF decided to rebuild the program — an effort that’s taken six years. Today the heart transplant team includes physician heart failure specialists, surgeons, transplant coordinators, social workers, financial coordinators, dietitians, pharmacists, behavioral health specialists, nursing educators, inpatient nursing, and a cardiac OR team (anesthesiologists, perfusion, nursing, physician assistants, technicians) who are all there to support the care of the patient.
The mission is to provide a local option so that people living in central Illinois do not have to travel to Chicago, St. Lous, or Indianapolis for a procedure that could take months to happen. OSF St. Francis is the only Illinois hospital outside these major cities that provides this service. St. Francis also does kidney and kidney/pancreas transplants for adults, and kidney transplants for children.
“The number of patients with heart failure is continuing to escalate year after year, so there is still tremendous need for it,” said Clemson. “We serve a population who otherwise has to travel at total inconvenience to themselves, their families and loved ones, to some faraway place to get transplanted. And if they are in the hospital for two to three months waiting for a transplant, that’s incredibly difficult for families who are waiting … We really have an obligation in my mind to do transplantation again for our community.”
Clemson hopes in the future to do upward of 40 heart transplants a year. They have already done two this year, including Wlodarchak and another patient shortly afterward, and there several more patients who could be next.
Clemson is not just an administrator, but also a member of the team who treats patients in heart failure. He was the doctor who called Wlodarchak the night they secured a donor heart.
“It’s as exciting today as it was for me when I was involved in my very first heart transplant back in 1989,” said Clemson. “And for John I was so excited. I was like bouncing off the walls when I told him. … Every time it’s just an amazing thing to be involved with.”
Young heart failure patients like John are actually not that unusual, said Clemson. Typically thought to be an older person’s ailment, heart failure has different causes in young patients, including viral infections that can cause damage for years before being detected.
“Young people have so much reserve they can have a heart that’s going bad for a year or two, and they go along and they don’t feel anything, and then they might start to feel a little bit of something, and then all of a sudden, they just jump off the cliff,” said Clemson. “It could have been because the inflammation in his heart had been there for that time leading up to it, slowly causing injury, and the heart stretching, getting weaker. And at some point it just can’t support the patient.”
John was working in his small engine shop when he first started noticing that something was wrong.
“I just didn’t have a whole lot of energy – a five-minute break turned into half-hour break, and the next day it got worse,” said John. “By Saturday, April 4, last year it was really bad. I loaded up a customer’s mower on the trailer and nearly passed out, I was out of breath. Next day I went and got a COVID test and a chest X-ray, and the next day I couldn’t sleep laying down anymore, I was just too short of breath, and my legs started swelling up and I couldn’t hold food down. That went on about a week before I went to the hospital.”
John’s doctor at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Mendota immediately sent him to OSF St. Francis in Peoria, and that night John’s condition became dire.
“That was the Saturday before Easter, and that night they called last rites on him. They weren’t gonna let me come in the hospital because of the COVID – at that time he was still under COVID precautions because they hadn’t definitively ruled it out. And I said, ‘Look, this is my only son,’” said Carol. “And they made the allowance and let me come in. He was spiraling so fast.”
John spent 93 days in the hospital, more than two and a half weeks of it unconscious, and had several surgeries and procedures before his heart was stabilized. He went back home to Mendota with the hope that his heart would heal.
“At that time we said if this is a viral infection of the heart, there’s a chance the heart might recover,” said cardiac transplant surgeon Dr. Emmanuel Amulraj, who is also the surgical director of the Heart Transplant Program at OSF.
That was not the case, however, a fact John’s mother began to accept when she noticed John’s lips were a persistent shade of blue. In January of this year, John was readmitted to OSF St. Francis and soon after his position on the transplant list was moved up, he received a heart.
John knew right away that things were different when he woke up from surgery.
“I could tell the difference in my breathing immediately,” he said.
Walking took a little bit longer, but as the fluid came off his legs, that too improved.
“Eleven days later I could walk a mile,” said John.
Today he takes the steps to his upstairs bedroom with ease, something he hasn’t done in a year. He hopes soon to be taking them two at a time, just like he used to.
Though John’s mother at first had difficulty accepting the fact that a man as healthy as her son could suddenly need a heart transplant, today she is thankful for the chance it has given him.
“I’ve always been an organ donor on my driver’s license, but I never thought it was gonna happen to me,” she said. “I never ever in my wildest dreams thought it was gonna be something we would need to use. And just to let people know that organs are needed, even for someone we thought was perfectly healthy, and it helped save his life. I’m now telling everybody, check the box because it is so critically important.”
While the average lifespan of a transplanted heart is 12.5 years, that number is not set in stone. Doris Thomas, a Marseilles resident who was the very first heart transplant patient at OSF St. Francis back in 1987, is still doing well on her first heart. She was 56 at the time of her transplant, and is now nearly 90 years old.
“So now we have two number ones — we have number one in the first era, and we have number one in the second era,” said Clemson. “I told John ‘I hope you live as long as number one.’ If he does, I’ll probably be gone before he goes.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or [email protected] Follow her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.
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