For the media

From COVID infection to heart transplant

By The Health News Team | November 9, 2021
Patient Dom Hill at Sharp Memorial Hospital

Sharp patient Dom Hill went from having COVID-19 to needing a heart transplant at Sharp Memorial Hospital.

Dom Hill knows that COVID-19 leads to mild illness for most people. Unfortunately, he can’t say the same for himself.

“There are people that have gotten COVID and they're like, ‘Oh, it was just like getting a cold,’” Dom says. “That's great. But for some of us, it’s a little bit worse than a cold.”

For Dom, just 29 years old, it was a lot worse. In fact, it likely led to his need for a heart transplant.

Dom, a drug and rehab counselor and mixed martial arts instructor, began feeling unwell in November 2020. He felt like he had a bad case of the stomach flu that just wouldn’t let up. It became so severe that Dom was dehydrated and his girlfriend, Candace, was pleading with him to go to the hospital.

Dom kept expecting to get better, waiting for the nausea to ease. But day after day, his condition worsened. Candace became so worried, she threatened to call in backup — his mom — to convince him to get help. “I was like, ‘Hey, that's not fair,” he says with a smile.

Dom finally gave in, and Candace took him to a local ER, where he was treated for his dehydration, tested for COVID-19, and sent home to isolate and recover. The next day, he learned he tested positive for COVID-19, and the following day, he was told he had a blood infection.

Dom quickly realized that his case of COVID-19 was certainly nothing like a cold.

A case of COVID that just wouldn’t quit
“They put me on antibiotics (for a blood infection) that were so strong I had to be admitted to the hospital,” Dom says. “I couldn't go home for six weeks. I missed Thanksgiving — it was horrible.”

As Dom reached the end of his course of antibiotics, his care providers noted that his heart rate was rapidly increasing. They performed testing and recommended that he speak with a cardiologist. His newest diagnosis: Dom had myocarditis, a condition that occurs when a viral infection causes inflammation of the heart muscle.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that people who have COVID-19 are 16 times more likely to experience myocarditis than those who have not had a coronavirus infection. Severe myocarditis can lead to heart failure, abnormal heartbeat and sudden death.

In Dom’s case, it led to his heart working at just 10% capacity. He could no longer work, care for his 3-year-old son, Caspar, or even walk his dogs. The medications he was given, defibrillator that was implanted to detect and correct his life-threatening abnormal heartbeats, and rest — lots and lots of rest — were not putting a dent in his struggles.

“I was just so fatigued,” he recalls of that time. “I could barely make it to my bathroom that was only about 10 feet away. I couldn't really get up to do anything. It got to the point where I moved an air mattress into my son's room so we could just hang out and sleep together while I waited to feel better.”

It wasn’t until Dom blacked out in the bathroom, when both Candace and Caspar were out of earshot, that the gravity of his situation became clear. It was the barking and scratching on the bathroom door by one of Dom’s dogs that led Candace to discover him.

A shocking diagnosis for someone who had what’s ‘just like a cold’ for others
At the urging of Candace’s aunt, who works at Sharp Memorial Hospital, Dom was rushed to the ER there and admitted to the hospital. He was told he had a blood clot — another possible life-threatening complication of COVID-19 — in his heart. The clot had limited blood flow and led to his blackout and continued stretches of lost consciousness.

He was severely dehydrated and unable to eat, his kidneys were shutting down, his liver was compromised, and his heart was beginning to fail. Dom, a formerly young, healthy man, was told he needed a heart transplant.

“While it is not entirely clear that COVID was the lone cause of his heart disease, it probably did contribute,” says Dr. Peter Hoagland, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation for Sharp Memorial Hospital. “Dom would not have been eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine at the time he contracted the disease; however, vaccination could have protected him from such severe illness.”

Dom was placed on the national transplant list and the Sharp Memorial cardiac transplant team members were determined to find him a heart that could take him through the next several years of his life. Dom said joining the list was the beginning of his “waiting game.”

Biding his time with Jim and Pam of ‘The Office’
“I'm 6’2”, I'm younger and I have a B-negative blood type, which are all difficult things to try to match,” Dom says. “If there was a B-negative heart, between the ages of 22 to 30 and within the Southwest of the United States, it was hopefully going to go to me.”

Dom tried to fill his days, which were spent primarily in his hospital room. He read books; did brain teasers and puzzles; enjoyed visits with Candace, who was designated as his one support person because of the pandemic; and watched TV — lots and lots of TV. In fact, Dom watched the entire series of “The Office” — not just once, but three times.

“It’s funny,” he says of the show. “But it got a little less funny after a while.”

Dom admits not even one of the all-time greatest TV sitcoms could keep away the darkness. He was experiencing some of the depression many transplant patients have when waiting for an organ to become available.

Dom found himself feeling lonely and exasperated by the seemingly endless stretches of time he had to fill in that one room. He was deeply saddened to learn of his grandmother’s passing while he was in the hospital, but unable to leave to grieve with his family. He was also dealing with physical pain.

However, Dom discovered that if he marked the time in hours, by meals or even by landmark episodes of “The Office,” rather than focusing on how long he’d been in the hospital and how much longer he might have to wait for his transplant surgery, his outlook improved.

“It was just about getting through hour by hour, from breakfast to lunch, and then lunch to dinner,” he says. “Or I would tell myself, ‘OK, just get to when Jim and Pam have their first kiss.’ It was weird, but it helped me get through everything.”

Dom also talked to his nurses throughout the long days that often blended into the nights. Whether it was about what he was going through or his favorite movies, he appreciated their companionship.

“Besides the illness, being at Sharp was a great experience,” Dom says. “My nurses and doctors were great. I had some rough times, and they definitely did their best to get me through.”

And Dom took advantage of the opportunity to receive music therapy and counseling in the hospital, just two of the many integrative therapies offered to patients. He and his therapist talked a lot about his childhood and some challenging relationships. “Both helped a lot and also gave me something to think about and focus on other than being sick and waiting,” he says.

A new heart, a new life
Dom’s wait finally came to an end roughly eight months after he began to feel sick. The transplant team notified him that they had found a matching heart. Before he knew it, he was being prepped for surgery.

While Dom experienced some last-minute jitters as they wheeled him into the operating room, his transplant was a resounding success. When he awoke the following day, he had a new heart. “I was waiting for this moment for so long,” he says.

The next weeks were no longer filled with waiting but healing instead. He was in pain — and even experienced a collapsed lung — but he slowly improved to the point where he could be released from the hospital and finally — finally — go home.

“After all that, I was able to go home,” he says. “And this is when I learned about life after a transplant. It’s definitely different than my life before when I was working, active, doing jiujitsu.”

Dom is now on nearly two dozen different medications and is still in some minor pain. Because he’s on immunosuppressants to ensure his body doesn’t reject his new heart, Dom can’t risk being exposed to any type of illness-causing bacteria or virus — especially the coronavirus — so he is staying close to home.

Determined to not sweat the small stuff and to appreciate life and those in it even more, he’s enjoying his time with Candace and Caspar and simply happy to be home, able to walk his dogs and take Caspar to the park. He also looks forward to returning to work.

And as for his thoughts on COVID — possibly considered “small stuff” for some, but certainly not for Dom — he understands people have their opinions and why some may be hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine. But after all he’s been through, he recommends getting vaccinated.

“It's the people that say, ‘I don't want to get the COVID shot,’ and then go around everybody that upset me,” Dom says. “They go around older people, younger people, in large groups. I want to tell them, ‘Don't think of this as an individual thing; think of it as a society thing and get it for the people around you.’”

And if they don’t get vaccinated and end up catching COVID-19, Dom truly hopes it will feel just like getting a cold.

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