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Sharp Health News

Heart transplant recipients race to the finish line

Aug. 5, 2016

Heart transplant recipients race to the finish line

Dr. Brian Jaski (third from left) with heart transplant recipients and half marathon finishers Justin Feria, Robert French and Bryon Moore, in 2012.

Before his heart transplant, Justin Feria would sit on the bathroom floor, throwing up and unable to move. Even after sleeping for about 20 hours a day, he was left with no energy. Everyday activities like walking were exhausting. His chance of living longer than a year was 25 percent.

Robert French forgot what it felt like to have a healthy, beating heart. He used to go to bed not knowing if he would wake up the next morning. Now, the thing he thinks about the most is that his kids have a father.

Bryon Moore was a paramedic for most of his life. While at an emergency physicians’ conference, he felt horrible so one of his friends hooked him up to an EKG, which revealed life-threatening arrhythmias and ventricular tachycardia. His heart’s right ventricle went from normal thickness to papier-mâché thin in a month. His cardiologist warned that his condition was terminal and that he would need a heart transplant.

“Following discharge from the hospital after heart transplant, we enroll all of our patients in an outpatient cardiac rehabilitation program,” says Dr. Brian Jaski, a cardiologist and medical director of the Advanced Heart Failure and Clinical Cardiology program at Sharp Memorial Hospital. “Interestingly, clinical studies have found that those who participate in this type of rehabilitation program require lower doses of steroid and anti-hypertensive medications and, furthermore, have a lower number of rejection and infection episodes.”

Before giving his approval for a long-distance race, Dr. Jaski required all three men to complete a period of initial screening and training. All passed with flying colors before completing the America’s Finest City Half Marathon in 2012, the culmination of the San Diego Triple Crown of running — three half marathons in one year.

“A lot of people have this idea, ‘Oh my God. He’s had a heart transplant, that they’ll be forced to live a bed-to-chair existence after their transplant.’ Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Dr. Jaski. “They realize what they’ve been given: an amazing gift of life. It’s inspiring to me. It’s inspiring to others to say look what they’re doing with their second chance. What am I doing?”

The runners’ strategy consisted of repeating cycles of running for two or three minutes then walking a minute, to reduce their levels of perceived exertion and joint stress.

“The physiology of exercise is different after a heart transplant because there are no nerves directly hooked up to the heart. People still respond with an increase of heart rate but it’s through the release of adrenaline into the circulation. They’re not hard-wired, it’s more soft-wired,” says Dr. Jaski.

The trio’s transplant status surprised many of their fellow runners. “People have no idea. What do you mean? Which one had the heart transplant? We’re just like everybody else,” says Moore. “It’s a fantastic gift to go from death’s door to being blessed enough to be able to do this.”

Learn more about Justin, Robert and Bryon’s journey in this Sharp HealthCare video

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