Brethren Man in Need of Heart Transplant
COVID-19 has impacted everyone in one way or another.
Some have even suffered a loss- a loss from being isolated, loss of a job, and some, their lives.
Those waiting for an organ have lost time, waiting on a list that could take years.
Michael Gramza of Brethren, in Manistee County, is one of those waiting for an organ to save his life.
“Emotional roller coast is what it’s been,” says wife, Jaime Gramza.
Gramza’s journey with heart failure began in 2019. In May of that year, an indeterminable virus attacked Mike’s heart, leaving the left side beating at just 10 percent. That’s when the defibrillator was put in, in case his heart stopped beating.
Fast forward two years, in September, Gramza found he was suffering from advanced heart failure.
Another month passes and Gramza once again found himself in the hospital for excessive fluid build up around his heart. He was readmitted in November and was told he was in the end stages of heart failure. His heart would not last. He was then referred to Spectrum’s Heart and Lung Transplant Team in Grand Rapids.
Gramza qualified for an LVAD – left ventricular assist device- to pump blood from the lower left heart chamber to the rest of his body. That’s when he was placed on the heart transplant waiting list.
After two weeks of testing, Gramza went in for his last tests in February. It was discovered the right side of his heart function had also significantly decreased.
The night before the procedure for the LVAD, his heart went into cardiac arrhythmia preventing any further operation. An impella heart pump was placed in at that time to try and regulate his heart’s rhythm. The team also shocked his heart three times trying stabilize him.
Gramza is still recovering in the critical care unit and if he shows progress will be able to leave the unit next week. It’s possible he might be waiting in the hospital until he’s able to be matched with a donor, while recovering.
“I haven’t left the hospital in three weeks,” says Jaime.
So the wait for a heart continues.
“He’s always joking about something and making me laughs about something,” says Jaime. “I mean, he’s coming to and he’s trying to make jokes, and little jokes for him matter. It’s a Mike joke. He’s always trying to make people laugh.”
Gramza is also one of roughly 2,500 people in Michigan waiting for an organ. It’s a growing list due to COVID-19 delaying transplants.
“The direct impact on wait time was likely the the sort of slowing down of transplantation, while the transplant experts tried to make sure it was safe,” says Gift of Life Michigan V.P. of Clinical Operations Bruce Nicely. “That undoubtedly lengthened the wait time, if you will, but for a very, very important reason because we we needed to be sure we wouldn’t, infect the recipient with COVID19.”
Gift of Life, who works to provide support for donors, recipients and their families, had to make adjustments at the beginning of the pandemic according to Nicely.
“People who were on that waiting list remained on it,” says Nicely. “The COVID pandemic early on hampered donation a little bit because we were learning. We didn’t know the implications for the infectious levels and how it spread and so forth.”
Though transplants decreased, the number of referrals increased. In fact, the organization saw two record breaking years for donors.
For a recipient like Gramza, there are several factors at play when it comes to being a recipient. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 in January which can affect the heart and lungs, making them weaker and more of a challenge in long-term recovery from an operation. Donors and recipients are also screened for COVID, for organizations like Gift of Life.
“We know, definitely, COVID-19 affects lungs,” says Nicely “There was early evidence that it could have some impact on the heart even in young people. If we’re looking at transplanting an organ into a recipient to save their life, the last thing we want to do is compromise their overall health with a virus like this.”
Gramza has been placed on the seventh tier of the waiting list- the lower end- until he recovers from his most recent operation. He might be able to move to the third or fourth tier, but his health history and his recovery will be taken into account.
“People added to the waiting list are awarded points, if you will, for things like the severity of their illness, the length of time they’ve been waiting…a number of factors would come into play,” says Nicely. “I know from the transplant perspective, [it] would not preclude that from the patient. There would, however, be a careful evaluation of how well the patient has recovered from COVID-19. How able their body would be able to accept the donated organ. To be able to manage the health care regimen that comes with post-transplant care. So there’s a there’s a host of variables that go into that equation. At this point, I’m not aware anywhere in the transplant community that COVID-19 is a deterrent to transplantation. It is a factor to be considered in the long term care.”
There are still many donors affected by COVID-19, impacting the recipients. There’s still caution that remains for heart donations. Liver and kidneys, and to some extent pancreas, are returning to pre-pandemic levels in terms of the number of transplants.
For Michael Gramza and his family their praying for his recovery and that time will be on their side.
“I’m just trying to stay positive nearly every day,” says Jaime. “He’s slowly getting better and then hopefully in three months, we’re up higher. We get that phone call and come back.”
You can sign up to be a donor here.
A GoFundMe has been set up to help the Gramza family with medical expenses.