Nick Hunter is only 31, but two years ago, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. The cause was a genetic disorder called dilated cardiomyopathy. Although he continued to work, his condition gradually worsened.
Sept. 4, Hunter received a life-saving heart transplant The Ohio State University Ross Heart Hospital. He was released from the hospital Oct. 5 to continue recovering.
"The new heart is great. It's working exactly how it should be. The doctors are very happy with my progress and everything I'm doing on a daily basis. That involves exercising, walking, getting out of the house as much as possible and real-life activities," Hunter said.
One of those activities is coming up this Saturday in Tiffin.
A benefit has been planned to help Hunter with expenses incurred from his transplant, and he intends to be there. A graduate of Columbian High School and The Ohio State University, Hunter had been living and working in New York since 2005.
"In the year 2000, I was diagnosed genetically through Ohio State. I was a freshman at Ohio State. Some of the team there was researching a family in Ohio, and somehow, we are distantly related to them. It was determined by someone in the family who works in research at Harvard," he said.
Friends and family of Nick Hunter have planned a "pre-game" benefit, starting at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Camden Falls, 2458 S. SR 231, Tiffin.
A dinner is to be served at a cost of $10 at the door. A silent auction, T-shirt sales and 50/50 drawing are planned. The event is to double as a tailgate party to watch the Ohio State game against Penn State 6-9 p.m.
Those who cannot attend can make donations to the Nick Hunter Foundation at Old Fort Banking Co., 634 W. Market St., Tiffin.
Information at www.heartdisease.about.com explains dilated cardiomyopathy causes ventricles of the heart to become weak and lose their ability to pump blood with sufficient pressure to reach the rest of the body. In addition, pressure builds in the heart and forces fluid into the lungs. Often, the heart develops an irregular beat.
Hunter said it makes the heart beat faster than normal and ages the organ too quickly.
In 1999, OSU published a study that pinpointed the genetic mutation responsible for dilated cardiomyopathy on the maternal side of Hunter's family. Nick, his mother and her siblings tested positive for the mutation.
Hunter said he did not have any significant symptoms or a formal diagnosis until November 2010. At that time, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and placed on about 15 medications to prevent further damage. He also had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted.
"In March of this year, my heart went into cardiac arrest. ... my heart went up to a really high beat," Hunter said. "I passed out in a restaurant, my defibrillator went off and it converted my heart back into a normal rhythm. When I woke up, I realized what happened to me."
Then in May, he spent time at the hospital undergoing electric shock treatments to regulate his heart. At that point, Hunter and his physician determined it was time to consider a heart transplant.
He wanted to return to Ohio State for the surgery because it is closer to his relatives. His doctor in New York contacted Abraham to get Hunter added to the heart transplant list, and Hunter arrived in Columbus in June.
Since his return to Ohio, Hunter has been in and out of the hospital. He had to pass up two hearts that became available. The first time, he was prepped for surgery but could not undergo the procedure because the blood thinner he had been taking put him at risk for severe blood loss. That medicine was discontinued. When the second call came, the transplant team went to remove the organ and bring it back to OSU. Unfortunately, that heart was not fully functioning and was unsuitable for use.
Hunter said his condition really went down after that, partly from disappointment and partly from his failing heart. He had been hospitalized about four months, and he had been told he wouldn't have much more time left to live.
He went to the top of the transplant list. His team considered implanting an L-vent, which is an artificial ventricle on the outside of the body; however, the surgery would have been hard on him.
Luckily, a heart became available.
Hunter was kept asleep for two days after the transplant, but about 24 hours after the surgery, he flat-lined. A number of his relatives were in the room, along with the doctor, who was able to revive Hunter with CPR. The team waited another 24 hours to wake him.
After five weeks of recovering in the hospital, Hunter was released. The team thought he would do better in a homelike setting at that point.
He has an apartment in Columbus, and family members have been staying with him. College friends also have offered support. Hunter says he is about 30 percent better than he was Sept. 4.
"My main issue is, I'm struggling with fluid. When they do the surgery, they put around 40 pounds of fluid in me, and I've only really lost about 15 pounds of it. It's all kind of stuck in my muscles, primarily my legs," he said.
The heart needs to become stronger and other organs must recover to cycle the excess fluid into Hunter's vascular system. Diuretics have helped some, but progress has been slower than expected. The swelling makes it difficult to wear "real" clothes. Breathing and walking are somewhat shaky, but overall, Hunter said he feels he is doing well.
Although information about the donor is sparse, Hunter knows it is an athletic heart from a young male. Hunter said his own heart was heavily damaged and more than two times larger than the new heart. He can contact the donor's family through an agency. For now, he will send a thank-you card to them through the agency. The family must contact him if they want to meet him.
While recovering, Hunter learned about Jessica Snyder, whose benefit also is Saturday night. They have been in contact with one another as she awaits a kidney transplant.
At the time of this interview, Hunter was waiting for his incisions to heal sufficiently to begin cardiac rehabilitation three times a week. He wants people coming to his benefit to know he will be wearing a mask to protect him from infections.
Anyone who is ill should not plan to attend.
"I'm on a lot of immuno-suppressants, so I'm very susceptible to disease and infections. Everything has to be very sanitized around me," Hunter said.
His doctors say full recovery will take about a year, but he should be significantly better in 3-5 months. Hunter's hope is to return to New York this spring. He misses his roommate, also a Tiffin native, and their dogs. His employer placed him on long-term disability, but Hunter is optimistic about resuming his job in pharmaceutical marketing.
"I'm trying to get back to a real life that I haven't lived for a few years because I've been so sick," Hunter said. "I just miss my life. I want to live."