Albert Kurtyka and his family rallied around his mother, Diane Kurtyka, for years as she battled heart disease and, later, when she underwent a life-saving heart transplant.
Surprised and overjoyed, the family learned on New Year’s Eve of 2011 that after months of waiting Diane would receive a donor heart.
By the next day, Diane’s transplant surgery was complete and she started the new year with the gift of a new heart. She gets emotional looking back on that time and marveling at the generosity of organ donation.
“You feel bad because somebody had to die to give you life,” she said. Yet she felt happy, too. “I was so fortunate that I got a donor.”
“It was unbelievable,” Albert added. As a manager of a Ross Dress for Less in Chesapeake, Va., Albert knew of the importance of heart health. Ross is an American Heart Association sponsor and raises money and awareness for heart disease and stroke research.
Albert helped Diane tell her story: Twenty years ago, a virus attacked her heart at age 40 and for 18 years she successfully controlled the situation with medicine before her heart gave out and she needed a transplant.
Little did Albert know, he would soon have his own frightening experience.
“It actually kind of fell on me fast and sudden,” said Albert, 34. “It happened out of nowhere.”
Albert had high blood pressure and knew of a history of heart trouble on his mother’s side of the family, but he didn’t know of any problems with his own heart. Then in September 2013, Albert felt fatigued and short of breath. He got winded going up a flight of stairs.
A few weeks later he experienced horrible pain from his chest down and could only stand for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. He went to the local hospital, and then on to a cardiologist. His heart was enlarged, and he was placed on high doses of a heart medicine. But there were complications.
Ultimately, Albert entered the same hospital where his mother had her transplant, Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, Va.
“All along it was the heart that was failing,” Albert said. “I felt like I was dying.”
Albert learned that he had multiple blood clots in his body. He was in the intensive care unit for three weeks. Then he was sent home with an external defibrillator and an intravenous drug to strengthen his heart.
Shortly before Christmas, a nurse called to tell him his potassium levels were dangerously low. His condition deteriorated further, and he again ended up in the hospital in Richmond.
Like his mother Diane, Albert was placed on a total artificial heart, a device that replaces the two lower chambers of the heart while waiting for a transplant.
On Jan. 29, after only 40 days of waiting, his donor heart arrived. It was a “high risk” heart from a trauma patient, but Albert and his family were thrilled with the donation. “Everybody was excited. We prayed. I cried,” he said.
His surgery lasted only three hours.
“The match just worked out great,” he said. “It was like, ‘Wow!’ It didn’t sink in until a couple of days afterwards.”
Though doctors must keep a close watch on Albert, he is upbeat about his future. A self-described “goofball,” he has fun with his extended family and his wife, Leora, and children Trey, 15; Tyler, 12; and Ava, 4.
“I wanted to be there for my family and kids and everything else,” he said. “I made it.”
Diane is an optimist, too, and enjoys life with her husband Carey and her three children and four grandchildren.
“I have a lot of living left to do,” she said. “I’m going to be one of the survivors.”
Diane and Albert were always close, and that bond has grown. They both live in Newport News, Va., so they see one another frequently. Diane helps Albert by explaining what to expect in his transplant recovery.
Both mother and son volunteer with the American Heart Association. Albert plans to keep up his volunteer work through Ross. He stresses the importance of awareness and prevention in heart health.
Diane encourages organ donation. “It’s just the best gift you can give somebody,” she said.
Diane has participated in the American Heart Association Heart Walk in her area the past two years to fund heart research. With Albert’s help she expects to raise even more money this year.
“We’re just trying to give back where we can,” she said. “We are just very thankful for a second chance.”
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