COLORADO SPRINGS – After Kirk Shiflett’s heart began to fail (STORY HERE), he was put on the waiting list for a new heart. But before one became available, his own heart needed help to keep him alive, and he needed to be healthy enough for transplant surgery.
A pump – called an LVAD (left ventricular assist device) was surgically implanted into the left ventricle of his heart, (STORY HERE) and it made more than a world of difference.
Kirk says, “If it wasn’t for the LVAD I don’t think I would be alive today.”
Dr. Natasha Altman is Kirk’s cardiologist at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora. Dr. Altman says, “He did extremely well with his LVAD, and he got the point where he was able to exercise again, and he had regained his functionality.”
Kirk, who lives in Rocky Ford, was also doing his part to stay as healthy as possible. “They were constantly monitoring me. I had to get checked for infectious diseases, cancer. My other organs had to be checked for problems. I didn’t smoke, I wasn’t a drinker and those are some other things that can keep people off the transplant list. I was fortunate that I didn’t have any of those addictions, I just had to get my blood sugars under control.”
Kate Wilson a registered nurse and transplant coordinator, is essentially Kirk’s case manager. She has had to see him through some of the hardest parts of his journey. Through it all, Kate says Kirk has been a model patient. “Kirk always answers his phone, which I love. He is very easy to follow up with. He is very responsible and there is never a question if he has made (required) med changes. He shows up to his appointments on time, and he is a very appreciative,compliant patient and an overall lovely guy.”
Kirk’s dedication to his health while on the transplant list and the fact he always answers his phone finally paid off. He remembers the moment clearly: “I was sitting at my computer working on my family history and getting ready to go to cardiac rehab in Pueblo. Nurse practicioner Emily Benton called me and said ‘What are you doing?’ And I said,’Well I’m getting ready to go to cardiac rehab’. She said, ‘Are you ready to come up here and get your new heart?,’ and that was so exciting. It was May 16th, and then I got the transplant on the 17th. I will never forget that voice that day.”
Kirk knows very little about his donor – only knows the age and gender. As is often the case, this miraculous gift comes at a tremendous cost of tragedy. He has written a letter to the donor’s family and hopes to hear back from them some day.
Physically his body accepted the new heart with few problems. Mentally for Kirk, it was more of an adjustment than he was expecting. Kirk explains, “Psychologically after I got my donor heart it was a very difficult thing for me to deal with. To know that somebody’s heart was in me, I had a lot of counseling with regards to that, especially knowing the age and gender of the donor it was bittersweet. Hopefully I can speak to the donor’s family about all of this and thank them for their son. I think the donor program is important and it saves lives everyday.”
Kirk’s fiancée, Rose, says, “That donor gave him (Kirk) a second chance at life, I truly believe that.”
For the doctors and nurses and others who have cared for Kirk on his journey, his outcome is a reminder of the importance of the work they do everyday.
Kate says she sees that in Kirk. “An absolute turnaround, to go from being hooked up to a heart pump and IV meds 24 hours a day, to getting your freedom back, to travel, to go to work, just to be able to climb a flight of stairs again is a miracle.”
Dr. Altman says of Kirk, “It’s a hard road. Having the support and resources to get through it is really important. Also being strong to push through helps immensely.”
With a new heart, Kirk says he decided it was time to move forward with another important aspect of his life. “I always knew I wanted to marry Rose from the minute we met again.” Rose and Kirk knew each other in high school in Pueblo. “After we got back together, and through all the times of her caregiving, and her kind heart and spirit – she is just a wonderful woman. We went up to Cripple Creek – it’s one of our favorite mountain spots – and right in front of the Midnight Rose Hotel I kneeled on the street and asked her to marry me, and it took her a little bit.”
Rose explains, “It was my birthday, and the sweetest thing was he had asked my children, and had let other people know he was going to do this. It was a surprise (to me) as you can imagine. It took me a while, and I said yes.”
Their wedding is scheduled for next fall, and Kirk says, “That’s the icing on the cake. To have a new heart, a new fiancee, and just a whole new life and to be able to live again. When I was lying in those hospital beds for 20-something days at a time, it’s just not a good thing. You lay there thinking about life and if you’re going to make it to the next day. Now I wouldn’t say I’m completely out of the woods yet because I have testing still, but things are looking very positive and I have been very blessed and we have a great life to look forward to.”
And when the special day arrives, Kirk says he will be grateful to have new friends in his life that he hopes will be part of the day. “I know the day we get married, when we are looking out there for those people, like Dr. Altman, or Kate or Emily or nurse Cantu, or any of those people sitting in the audience and realizing I was under their care and so sick, and now they are there sitting at my wedding, it will be a dream come true. It’s going to be an amazing day.”
Kirk is also an accomplished artist and has been painting long before his heart journey began. Kirk says, “Through the use of different painting media I capture the association between humanity, and nature through a contemporary narrative context. We are characteristically tied to nature, and my work is about that relationship. These narrative paintings explore an ever evolving balance, and often reciprocal / fragile union with nature, as is our connection to it. My paintings pursue a juxtapose of the aesthetic organic quality of nature united with the raw mechanized material of civilization.”
Kirk’s latest work reflects his life experience through heart failure to heart transplant and he intents to donate it to the transplant team in Aurora when it’s complete (BONUS WEB EXCLUSIVE STORY HERE). To learn more about his art you can visit his website (HERE)
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