Meet: Jim Fijalkovich
- Age: 40 (at implant)
- Diagnosis: Dilated cardiomyopathy
- SynCardia Total Artificial Heart implant date: May 26, 2008
- Transplant date: July 24, 2008
- Time on SynCardia's Total Artificial Heart: 59 days
- Residence: Ravenna, Ohio
- Hospital: Cleveland Clinic
- Surgeon: Dr. Nicholas Smedira
I Swelled Up Like a Grapefruit
My heart problems started in 2002. I had just returned from a business trip and was sick with flu-like symptoms. The doctors tried different antibiotics, but after four weeks, I wasn’t getting any better. I wasn’t keeping anything down, so they decided to do a CT scan to look at my bowels. I swelled up like a grapefruit because my heart wasn’t moving any of my fluids. The cardiologist sent me to the emergency room.
After that, they put me on medication. For the next six years, I didn’t really have any more symptoms.
Downhill from There
At the beginning of 2008, I started not feeling right. It seemed like I was putting on more fluid and it was harder to get rid of. I had to keep increasing my medications to keep the fluid down. My doctors at Cleveland Clinic suggested a pacemaker, which I received on May 1, 2008. It was pretty much downhill from there.
After being out of the hospital for one week, I went back to not feeling right. I was actually feeling worse. I went to my local hospital, where they tried adjusting my medications. After no luck, they sent me back to Cleveland Clinic. I was in the ICU there for two weeks.
On Memorial Day, my kidneys and liver started shutting down. That’s when my doctors suggested the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart. Without it, they said the rest of my organs were going to die. They said the Total Artificial Heart would provide good blood flow to my organs and bridge me to a heart transplant.
Life with the Total Artificial Heart
The major driving force after getting the Total Artificial Heart was to get motivated and get my strength back so I could get listed for a new heart. Other than being sore, I felt as good as I did before I got sick.
I was walking three miles a day with the Total Artificial Heart: two miles on the treadmill and then one around the hospital floor. With the Total Artificial Heart, it was easy, a piece of cake. I wasn’t even out of breath.
Going to the gym was the highlight of my day. The cardiac rehab room was our meeting place and hangout. It allowed me to go and talk with all the other patients in the cardiac ward.
“Put Down the BBQ Ribs, We’ve Found You a Donor Heart”
I had been really good about following the strict hospital diet, but on July 23, 2008, a buddy of mine called and offered me anything I wanted to eat. I told him, “Heck yeah! Bring me a slab of ribs from Hot Sauce Williams.” No sooner did I get done sucking the meat off the last bone, my nurse runs in and tells me, “Put down the BBQ ribs! We’ve found you a donor heart!”
- It was 1 p.m. when the nurses told me a donor heart had become available.
- By 6 p.m., I was in surgery.
- By 2:30 a.m. I had my new heart.
Two days later, I was up moving around. When I went in for my first biopsy, I was standing talking to all the nurses. One of the nurses turned around and kept looking for my Big Blue driver. He couldn’t believe I was standing there without any drivelines or machinery. I loved it. I was hamming it up.
The Best Thing for Me
The Total Artificial Heart was the best thing for me. It saved my life and kept me going for 59 days while they found me a new heart. It wasn’t like I was laying down stuck in a bed somewhere. I was up and able to move around and interact with people. The last few days before I got transplanted, I was pushing the Big Blue driver that powered my Total Artificial Heart for one or two laps by myself while my nurses walked along side me.
A Precious Gift
On Sept. 3, 2008, I was cleared to get back on my motorcycle. I took my 9-year-old son Jesse on a tour of the country. I told him, “I’ll get a map and you can pick any city and that’s where we’ll go.”
“Now we can go back to doing stuff together like we did before my dad’s heart got sick.” – Jesse Fijalkovich, Jim’s 9-year-old son
I cannot explain the gift the Total Artificial Heart has given me to have more time with my son. I am thankful for every minute I get with him, just doing the things that dads and sons do. Today, I feel like the six million dollar man.