By Vanesa Brashier, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanksgiving this year took on extra special meaning for the family of Chuck and Lisa Smesny of Dayton. Instead of gathering around a dinner table to enjoy a feast of food, the Smesnys – with their children, Erika and Travis – gathered at Chuck’s bedside at Methodist Hospital in Houston on Wednesday, Nov. 27, to pray and give thanks before he was taken into surgery to receive a new heart.
Chuck, 59, was placed on the heart transplant waiting list in March 2019 due to his declining health as a result of Connective Tissue Disease, an autoimmune disorder that can attack a person’s organs. For Chuck, the disease caused heart failure, a prognosis he received on April 3, 2012.
“I had just retired from my job at Dayton State Bank, which is now called Prosperity Bank. I retired on March 31, 2012, and he was diagnosed on April 3, so I had three days of retirement,” Lisa said jokingly. “After that, I stayed home and helped take care of him full-time.”
Along the way, doctors took other measures to extend Chuck’s life. He had a defibrillator installed that doctors hoped would allow his heart muscle to strengthen.
“Some people get a defibrillator and bounce back from this. Chuck’s heart worked so hard that it got weaker. In the last couple of years, he really started to decline,” his wife said. “They told us in March that he needed a transplant. He had to undergo an extensive amount of testing to make sure he was a good candidate. You have to be healthy and not have any underlying medical issues.”
Green-lighted for the heart transplant, the Smesnys were told to expect a lengthy wait until a heart became available. In October, Chuck’s health declined even further, requiring constant hospitalization.
“Some of the people waiting with us at the hospital have been in there for eight months or longer. Some people never get their hearts in time. They are too sick and they don’t come in time to save them,” Lisa said.
With Thanksgiving just a day away, Lisa ended her visit with Chuck on Wednesday, Nov. 27, with plans to make him a heart-healthy meal that she would bring to the hospital to enjoy with him so he wouldn’t be alone on Thanksgiving Day. As she was getting ready to head home, her cell phone rang.
“The person on the other end said, ‘We have a heart. Would you like to accept this offer?'” Lisa said. “I was in shock at first and didn’t know what to do. We weren’t expecting it that quickly.”
Naturally, they accepted and Chuck’s doctors planned for the transplant surgery that began Wednesday evening and ended at 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
Waking up after surgery, Chuck, who was unable to speak because of tubes in his throat, flashed a thumbs-up sign to let his family members know he was okay.
Chuck will be required to take anti-rejection medicines for the remainder of his life but it is a small price to pay for a longer life.
The Smesnys are grateful for the support of their friends, family and the Dayton community who have prayed for Chuck’s recovery.
“We believe in the power of prayer. It has gotten us through many things. Without the support of our friends, family and the whole darn town, I don’t think we could have done this,” Lisa said. “This little town always comes together. Even though I sometimes think I am superwoman trying to handle and face things, I sometimes need help and support, so I want to thank everyone for their outpouring of prayers and support.”
The hospital stays at Houston Methodist Hospital has given the Smesnys a new insight on the importance of donating organs after death.
“I’ve heard from so many people who now want to be organ donors. Some people believe that the hospital will let you die in order to take your organs, but that is not true,” she said. “Chuck and I have always been donors. We believe there is no greater gift you can give another family.”
The Smesnys know they may never know the other donor family and have very little information about the person, except that they were around 35 years old. They consented to the hospital providing their contact information to the donor family and are leaving the door open to a possible reunion in the future.
“Thank you for giving me my husband back,” said Lisa to the donor family. “We are praying for you all. We know you are grieving while we are celebrating, but please know that we are thinking of you the whole time.”
The Smesnys are encouraging others to sign up as organ donors. The two easiest ways is for a person to check the “organ donor” box when renewing their driver’s license or to go online to organdonor.gov.
“Yesterday, there was someone in the next room of the hospital dying because they didn’t get a heart in time. It’s a normal day over there,” Lisa said. “It’s hard because we’ve made friends with some of the people there. People come from all over the world to be at the best heart hospital in the country. I’ve met people from Michigan and Germany, who traveled to Houston Methodist Hospital for their surgeries. They have been with us throughout this whole process.”
Chuck’s prognosis is good and he could be released within the next two weeks, just in time for Christmas with his grandchildren, who, because of hospital restrictions, have been unable to visit him since October. Lisa said not seeing his grandchildren – Mila, Caleb, Sam and Chloe – has been unbearable for Chuck.
“He is missing his grandbabies. It’s terrible. He said that part is worse than the surgery,” Lisa said.
Once he fully recovers, the Smesnys are looking forward to resuming some of the activities they had enjoyed prior to his illness – camping and traveling. Chuck, who worked as an operator for Chevron, will retire at the end of this year.
“He is already looking at campsites for us to visit,” Lisa said with a laugh.