On November 2, 2009, I received the gift of life courtesy of a generous donor and the very accomplished heart transplant team at Tampa General Hospital. Last month, my four-year annual review was spectacularly smooth. My wonderfully new, 26-year old heart is about one-third the size of my diseased heart. Every day, I think about the courageous young male donor, pray for his family and give thanks for the exceptional cardiology department at Tampa that helped me while waiting and while recovering.

My experience has been uncommon. The powerful rejection medicines took their toll on my muscular and nervous systems and severely compromised my immune system. Complications led to life or death spinal surgery where my spine was removed between T-6 and T-7 along with two ribs. In the spine’s place is now a steel rod, a steel plate and a bunch of chicken wire that holds everything in place.

One courageous surgeon agreed to try to save my life before the spine caved in and left me paralyzed. One more skilled physician I thank every day.

Needless to say, during the 27 months waiting the transplant and for the four years following the gift, life has changed. My athletic endeavors have been hampered by the myopathy and by the neuropathy. Periodically, my bride and friends encouraged me to workout, pray, meditate and stretch. I inevitably embraced all these things during the last six years.

Realizing the Importance of Fitness

My life has always been active and sports-oriented. Yet, my efforts to rebuild my muscles were in vain. Inevitably, I would overwork myself, get tired, become prone to illness and regress.

That was before I met my new friend and personal trainer, Justice, at the Tampa Bay Downtown YMCA. I hate to think what Justice thought when he first saw my fragile and feeble physique.

In 2013, I took two serious falls. And, on my way to Tampa, I also fell on the escalator. I agonized over these falls. In preparation for my annual review, my goals for the future changed. My goal when the new heart was received was to live long enough to meet the three new grandchildren (8 in total) that were on the way. Now that a young lady is on the way, my new goal is to reach her fifth birthday. That would make me a 9.5-year post heart transplant survivor.

In the world of heart transplantation, one of the first question you ask when considering entering a program is about survival rates. At the time, about 13 percent of heart transplant recipients died on the table. About 72 percent survived the first three years and 70 percent survived the first five years.

My days of chasing those numbers are over. My goal after this year’s successful review, which included a stress test and left-right heart cath, is not only to live a lot longer, but to run, to find my swing and my stride.

Two months ago, this seemed physically impossible. But, my friend Justice has other plans. He has laid out a program to first rebuild my core, giving me the stability and flexibility I need. What I realise now is that the fitness exercise I was doing in the past was destructive, not constructive. I now only use weights to try to strengthen my weak legs.

But, I use a variety of core building tools, including balance balls, resistance bands, some type of hard roller and numerous core exercises to seriously strengthen and stabilise everything. Everything feels great. I am sore. I am tired. I am blessed.

I now walk 1.5 hours a day in beautiful Tampa while walking to and from the Y. Two months ago, that seemed impossible.

My point is if you are down and want to get up, don’t try by yourself. See a professional fitness trainer and describe what ails you. Then commit. Get outside. And, enjoy every second of the experience. Your attitude, your body and your mind will reap big rewards. Trust me. Being active is being alive. I am all in. How about you?


Hiland Doolittle


Image Credits: Flickr