Leading up to this summer's opening of the Nancy and Harold Zirkin Heart & Vascular Hospital at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, we will be sharing a series of stories that provide a glimpse into the lives of some of our heart and vascular patients, the care they received and what life has been like for them since being treated. Today we visit with retired Navy Admiral, Tim Heely.
An Unexpected Trip To The Hospital
Tim Heely, a retired Navy Admiral and F-18 pilot, has always been very active and diligent about his health. One night, after his daily run of about 5 miles, Tim started to experience pain in his arm and had difficulty catching his breath. True to his nature as a navy pilot, Tim was predisposed to not go to the doctor and decided to wait it out. He thought he merely had a case of pneumonia and never expected to eventually need a heart transplant.
Eventually, Tim’s wife convinced him to see a doctor, and they went to MedStar St. Mary’s hospital close to their home in Southern Maryland. Within minutes, Tim was being sent to MedStar Washington Hospital Center in D.C. Once they arrived, Tim had a couple of stents implanted by the time his wife was able to park the car and enter the building.
Tim had had a heart attack that did so much damage, his heart was unable to sustain itself. Tim says, “I like to think that when I went in [St. Mary’s] they knew exactly where to send me and who to call. There’s strength in having that tie.”
New Wingmen, A New Heart
Tim explains, “As a navy pilot, I took risks every day and loved it. I learned to trust my training, my aircraft and my wingmen.”
Throughout the course of 5 days, Tim put his full trust in the heart and vascular team at MedStar Washington as they worked diligently to stabilize his heart. Unfortunately, Tim’s body rejected each treatment attempt. It was then decided that a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) would be the best option while he waited for a new heart.
Tim received the LVAD on May 17th, 2011 and enjoyed good health for 2 years, until a complication meant that it was time for a heart transplant.
On May 7th, 2013, Tim received a new heart.
“Thanks to the doctors and the nurses I’m back alive and I shouldn’t be,” Tim recounts. He remembers one specific instance during the beginning of his care when his body was rejecting multiple treatments. One resident was really putting in the extra effort. She noticed something was wrong, made phone calls and spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going on.
When Tim received his heart transplant, he recognized the voice of one of his doctors, the same resident that had put so much attention to his care nearly 3 years before. Tim expressed his gratitude, “There's like 3-5 times where someone really made a difference, and if they weren’t there I would have been dead, this was one of those times.”
Although Tim decided not to return to work due to a stressful commute, he has started his own company and is also taking part in his own self-run transplant triathlons. He walks, kayaks and bikes multiple miles a day. “I feel really good. I want to be the guy that didn’t let this get him down. I wanna be the guy where people say ‘can you believe what this guy did?’ ”
Since that day, Tim has seen all of his children marry, and he now has 2 grandsons. “I’m very grateful and I feel in a lot of ways better than I felt before because I’ve died and come back and everything means a little bit more to me. Every day I wake up and I thank my donor and the donor’s family.”
Tim has also served as a mentor for other patients receiving care at the MedStar Washington Heart and Vascular Institute, “I’ve mentored about 6 people on getting the LVAD or getting a heart transplant. I like telling them that there is hope.”
Tim shares that getting a heart transplant “...was a very good learning experience on so many levels. Everyone has a problem and you may just not know it. None of us is perfect, we all have something.”