Abilene As the Cox family gathers for Christmas, they have more to celebrate than the season, and have received more than traditional gifts.
Over two years ago, Mike Cox was serving in the Navy and had just returned from a six-month deployment when he began suffering from chest pains and shortness of breath.
He was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes the heart to enlarge and become weak. Sue Cox, Mike’s mother, says it may have been due to a virus.
“They had me on medications and after a year the Navy medically retired me,” Mike said. “They sent me home to be with my family, hoping I would get better.”
However, in June 2007, the pains worsened and it was becoming difficult for Mike to breathe.
He went to a VA hospital in Topeka and doctors there determined he needed a heart transplant. The VA system has two transplant facilities near Kansas, one in Tennessee and one in Utah.
“We went to Salt Lake City. They flew me on an air ambulance and apparently I gave them a scare on the way,” Mike said. “I began having a lot of trouble breathing, my lips turned blue, and they really had to work to keep me breathing.”
He arrived at the VA hospital on July 11, and the doctors began evaluating him. He had fluid built up around his lungs, which the doctors removed.
Sue also went to Salt Lake City to be with Mike. She remained there with him for four months.
He was ranked 1A on the transplant list, top priority, on July 13.
Nine days later, on July 22, Mike was given a heart transplant.
“The new heart’s been great,” Mike said. “It has definitely changed my life.”
Since then, he met his wife, Lyndsie, and has been attending college.
That is only half of the story. Mike’s dad, Greg, had been struggling with heart problems for years.
Dr. Brian Holmes, Greg’s physician, told him that he would need a new heart eventually.
“My infraction number, which shows how hard a heart’s working, just kept getting lower and lower,” Greg said. He also tried medications, but his condition worsened. What began as congestive heart failure had turned into dilated cardiomyopathy, the same problem his son had dealt with.
Finally, Dr. Holmes sent Greg to the Kansas University Medical Center.
“I visited with doctors there and ended up with Dr. Charles Porter,” Greg said. “He was one of the doctors heading up the St. Luke’s Health System and KU heart transplant collaboration.”
“Dr. Porter sent me to Dr. Andrew Kao at St. Luke’s,” Greg said. “He did the medical evaluation.”
Greg explained that every heart transplant patient is evaluated to be sure they are a good candidate.
“I made it through the tests and it wasn’t too long before they put me on the list as a 1B,” Greg said.
This was in October. He had been told that with the 1B status, which is not as high priority as 1A, he may have to wait up to six months.
“On Nov. 3, I got a call from the hospital. They asked me if I was feeling OK and if I was running a temperature,” Greg said. “At 3 p.m. they called and said we have a heart for you.”
He was prepped and ready for surgery at 11:15 p.m.
“He (the surgeon) told me he took out a heart the size of a deflated softball and put in one the size of a fist,” Sue said.
Greg said it was wonderful to have his own personal consultant. He called Mike frequently with questions, and Mike was able to offer advice.
“Mike kept saying the day I walked out of there I would feel like a million bucks and he was right,” Greg said.
Greg is still going through cardio rehabilitation to strengthen the muscles surrounding his heart.
“I’m getting stronger every day. It’s amazing what a good heart will do for you,” he said.
Greg and Mike are one of only two father-son duos requiring heart transplants in Kansas.
“We’re just thankful that people donate organs for transplants,” Sue said.