Lenoir County resident recounts recent heart transplant
Tim Sutton during a recent follow-up visit at Duke University Hospital. Submitted photo.
Tim Sutton, 45, is a native of the Bucklesberry community in La Grange. Earlier this year, he underwent heart transplant surgery.
"There's a history of heart trouble on one side of my family," Sutton said. "Eight men - five brothers and three cousins - have all had heart trouble at roughly my age. Some of those men died as a result, while others have ongoing problems."
In 2012, Sutton's heart troubles began when a defibrillator had to be installed in his chest.
"I had an irregular heartbeat," Sutton said. "Over the next five years my heart grew weaker, and by May, it was only pumping at 30 percent capacity."
Sutton sought treatment at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville as he was having trouble breathing and was unable to keep any food down.
"One night when I laid down I could hear gurgling sounds coming from my chest," Sutton said. "Later, I found out those sounds were caused by fluid buildup in my lungs."
Sutton said his wife - who is a healthcare technician at Caswell Center - told him to get dressed so they could get him to a doctor.
"I told him he was either going to the doctor or I was going to drag him," Vickie Sutton said. "I asked him later if I hadn't been there, would he have gone to the doctor; he said he wouldn't have. I guess I was in the right place at the right time."
Once he and his wife arrived at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, another problem presented itself.
Picture 1: Tim Sutton at home shortly after heart transplant surgery
Picture 2: Tim and Vickie Sutton weeks after his heart transplant
Picture 3: Tim Sutton's pill caddy, maintained by his wife Vickie
"At Vidant, it's a long walk from the parking lot to the emergency room," Sutton said. "I was completely out of breath by the time I got in there. A nurse sat me in a wheelchair and took me to an area where they performed an electrocardiogram test. They then pulled 4 liters of fluid from my lungs."
Sutton said the fluid buildup in his chest was caused by his heart beating too fast.
"My heart was pumping really fast like a washing machine; it was pumping so fast not enough blood was being pushed through."
Sutton remained at Vidant for three weeks while doctors attempted to correct his condition with medicine, but it didn't work.
"On May 2, after three weeks of trying they told me there was nothing else they could do at Vidant, they told me I would need a new heart, and that I'd need to go to Duke University Hospital," he said.
Sutton was sent to Duke Hospital directly from Vidant, where he remained for a month while waiting for his insurance company to approve coverage of the transplant. While waiting on the insurance company's decision, doctors at Duke installed a balloon pump to help Sutton's heart.
"The balloon pump kept me alive while we waited," Sutton said. "If they'd sent me home, I wouldn't have survived."
Not only was Tim's wife Vickie working at Caswell Center while commuting to Duke University Hospital daily, she was also going to school working on her associate's degree in human services.
"I'd get off work at 10:30 p.m., stop by the house to check on our pets and then head to Duke," she said. "I'd then stay with Tim until around 9 a.m. the next day and be back to work by 2 p.m."
On May 17, the insurance company approved coverage of the surgery and Sutton was added to the transplant list. A day later, Sutton's doctor informed him that he'd found a heart but had issues with its condition.
Sutton decided to trust his doctor and wait for a better heart.
"On May 22, my doctor told me he'd found another heart," Sutton said. "He said there was an issue with this one also, but he could correct it during the transplant. I agreed to go with the heart he found, and he told me to call my family because the procedure would be done later that night."
Sutton said his doctor described the procedure - which took four hours - as the "smoothest heart transplant he'd ever done."
The heart Sutton received came from a young person, around 20-years-old.
"Initially, they don't give you too many details," Sutton said. "I have to wait a year before I can find out more information regarding the donor. I've already filled out the necessary paperwork required to meet the donor's family."
While some transplant patients are on waiting lists for months or even years, since Sutton was already utilizing an implanted defibrillator and balloon pump to survive, he was pushed further up the list. Sutton's age and the fact that he'd never done drugs, smoked or been a drinker were also factors.
"My doctor said I was too young to let this get me," Sutton said. "He said he was going to take care of me."
Sutton said he instantly felt different upon waking up one hour after the transplant was completed.
"I immediately had more energy," Sutton. "I walked half a mile the day after the surgery."
Traditionally, after a procedure of this magnitude, patients have to remain in the hospital for 30 days. Sutton was on his way home eight days after the surgery.
"I've had no organ rejection issues so far," Sutton said. "I take anywhere from 15 to 30 pills a day to ward off infection and rejection. If all goes well, in time that number will shrink to 10, but I will have to take those 10 for the rest of my life."
Sutton's transplant journey happened so fast, he had little time to be frightened by what was happening.
"To be honest, it still hasn't dawned on me yet," Sutton said. "If I'd told the doctors I didn't want a new heart, I wouldn't have made it. When the lady at Vidant told me what I needed she had tears in her eyes, but even then they didn't let on really how bad off I was."
For the first two months after Sutton's transplant, he was required to have follow-up visits at Duke University Hospital every Monday. Currently, his visits are down to once every four weeks.
"If everything keeps going well I'll soon be down to two checkups per year and then one per year afterward," Sutton said.
When Sutton entered Duke University Hospital, he weighed 181 pounds; when he left he was down to 123.
"I've gained most of the weight back," Sutton said. "I lost so much weight at the hospital because the food at Duke is barely edible. They've pretty much turned me loose diet-wise, other than watching my salt intake."
Sutton - a respected welder and mechanic in the Lenoir County area - has been advised by his doctors to rest for a year.
"The doctors said my chest will eventually fuse back together but will probably never heal," Sutton said. "As much as I'd like to, it's impossible to be a mechanic or a welder without lifting anything heavy, which could cause problems. Right now I'm going to therapy at UNC Lenoir Healthcare for 26 weeks. Laying in a bed for a month really messes you up. When I first got out of the bed I couldn't walk; it's like I had to learn all over again."
Clearly grateful for avoiding the same fate as several of his close relatives, Sutton summed up his experience succinctly.
"I owe everything to God and my wife."
Contact Jon Dawson at email@example.com and www.jondawson.com.