MADAWASKA, Maine — Valentine’s Day is a celebration of romance and love; a celebration of the heart.
February 14 last year brought Reginald Nadeau’s heart out in the open, literally.
“I had my first open heart surgery on Valentine’s Day 2015,” the 62-year old retired mill worker said while sitting at his kitchen table last week.
That surgery would eventually lead to a heart transplant in August, giving Nadeau a new lease on life and a fresh perspective.
“I’m living my life,” he said. “The petty things don’t bother me anymore. I am more grateful for life, and I thank God every day.”
“It changes the way you look at life, for sure,” he said
Nadeau’s health issues came on a little more than a year ago, when, on Jan 29, 2015, he went to the emergency department at Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent for what he thought was a bad cold and fatigue.
Following blood tests that indicated serious cardiac issues, he found himself headed to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor soon afterward, for catheter testing.
“Dr. St. Pierre (NMMC) was super sharp,” Nadeau said. “He saw something wasn’t right and sent me down.”
It turned out that Nadeau’s cardiac blood vessels were not blocked, but the cardiac muscle tissue in his left ventricle, the one that pumps blood the the body, was very unhealthy and only running at fraction of its capacity.
“On February 5 my heart stopped,” he said.
After being revived, doctors in Bangor implanted a balloon device in his aorta as a temporary way of increasing his cardiac output.
Nadeau was then on his way to Boston and would be in a medically induced coma for five days.
“My left ventricle was dying, he said,” and it was not long before the right side began showing signs of failure as well.
Nadeau said the doctors are still unsure what had caused that section of cardiac muscle to fail, although they speculate it was a bacterial or viral infection. His actual heart tissue is expected to be researched this year he said, in hopes of finding some answers.
In Boston, on Valentine’s Day 2015, surgeons at Brigham and Women’s Hospital operated on Nadeau a second time and placed him on an external blood circulation machine, which literally took over the job of his own heart. This large machine sat next to his hospital bed.
A month later, surgeons placed a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) inside Nadeau’s own heart, enabling him to me mobile once again. Through various sensors and controls, both inside and outside, Nadeau’s blood was now circulating at an acceptable rate.
However, continued deterioration of the right side of his heart and some issues with the new device, meant that the LVAD was not a long-term option for the father of four.
His daughter Tina is living in Portland and his son Russell is living in Lebanon, Maine. Another son, Rick, returned to the St. John Valley recently to open County Connection Pub and Nightclub.
His daughter Katie, who is a doctor, was especially involved in his care and was by his side for extended periods of time.
“My kids were so supportive through all of this,” said Nadeau. Family and friends would help sustain Nadeau’s morale though the ordeal, he said.
“Out of those five months,” he said, “I was alone maybe two weeks.”
With his name on the heart transplant waiting list, Nadeau returned to life at his home in Madawaska. He was home, but still unwell and unable to do many of the things he had enjoyed before.
On Aug. 6, at 9:30 in the morning, the phone rang.
“Do you want a heart,” the person on the other end said.
“I said, ‘Yes’,” Nadeau said, even though he wasn’t sure if it was joke or not.
Twelve hours later, a surgical team in Boston looked directly at Nadeau’s ailing heart, for the third and final time.
“At 4 a.m. I came out with a new heart,” he said.
The difference was instantaneous and remarkable, he said.
“I walked on the third day,” said Nadeau, although he felt he could have done so the first day after the operation.
“What really scared me,” Nadeau said. “I never had a chance to talk to my kids before that first operation.”
The severity and reality of his situation had not hit Nadeau that first time. He had not yet come to terms with the finality of a bad outcome.
“I wasn’t ready to let go,” he said.
“By my second surgery, I had let go 95 percent,” Nadeau said.
“When it came time to the transplant I was 100 percent OK with it,” he said. “I said ‘God, whatever you have planned is all right.’ What could I do at that point?”
Nadeau said he was never a very religious person, but has always been spiritual.
The healing process following the transplant was an emotional as well as physical one.
“After the transplant I had breakdown,” he said. “Sort of like post traumatic stress.”
“All the tears and pain were over. I don’t know what to do,” he said. “It was life changing for me and my kids, and my brothers and sisters.”
The realization of what he would have missed, had the transplant not been successful, was a heavy one.
“You can’t wait too long to say, ‘I love you’,” Nadeau said.
Along with his children and other family members, Nadeau drew strength and found support from the community.
“The support I got was unreal,” he said. “It’s humbling for a man my age to have people do things like that for you.”
“No one goes through this alone,” he added.
Nadeau’s new heart was donated by a young man, which is all Nadeau knows about the person that saved his life.
“They make you wait a year before telling you who the donor was,” he said, which provides the donor’s family time to grieve.
He hopes to one day meet the donor’s family, he said. He said, only half in jest it seemed, that, should he learn the name of the young man, he would get it tattooed on his chest.
Nadeau’s journey back to good health included some luck and narrow misses too.
Following the first surgery his liver and kidneys began to deteriorate. The doctors were able to eventually stabilize them.
The ambulance that transferred Nadeau to Bangor the first time got a flat tire. On one flight the plane had to land to refuel and recharge the batteries for all the equipment he was on.
“They had me on 20 IVs at one point,” Nadeau said with a chuckle, and sense of humour and acceptance the past several months had afforded him.
“I had to be at the right place at the right time,” he said, referring to emergency room doctors first seeing there was a problem to receiving the donor heart.
The entire medical process leading up to a new heart left Nadeau with a fresh perspective on his life and piles of hospital papers and expenses.
“The cost for all of this was astronomical,” he said, estimating it could be a million dollars in all.
The additional catastrophic coverage he opted for with his Medicare helped to cover much of that cost, he said.
After months of feeling sick and fatigued while waiting for his new heart, Nadeau now finds himself not only recovered from the transplant surgery, but taking on new and exciting things in his life
“I’m doing stuff I never did before,” he said. This includes learning about Reiki, line dancing and numerology.
“I was planning to run a 5K this spring, but I may wait a bit,” said Nadeau, who played on the Bengals’ basketball squad while he was at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
Nadeau is still traveling to Boston once a month for regular checkups and he also regularly sees Dr. James Harris at NMMC. His medications, which numbered more than 20 immediately after surgery and included anti rejection medications, are down to five different prescriptions a day.
“All the doctors and nurses, and everyone along the way were very professional,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Ultimately though, if it were not for the person who chose the be an organ donor, all the medical staff in the world would not have been able to save Nadeau.
“If there hadn’t been a donor, I’d be dead,” he said.
That is why Nadeau is encouraging people to consider becoming organ donors. More information can be found at www.donatelife.net.
Currently, nearly 124,000 men, women and children are awaiting organ transplants in the United States, accordimg to www.donatelife.net In 2014 29,532 organ transplants were performed .
Nadeau said too many people do not try things because of their own “mental blocks” or fears.
“I am not stopping myself anymore,” he said.
That includes going out Saturday night for a dinner with his girlfriend to celebrate Valentine’s Day. The two had only been on one date prior to that first trip to the emergency room at NMMC a year ago.
It will be a Valentine’s Day when Nadeau will also be celebrating a new lease on life.