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Heart Transplant Gives Athens Man a Second Chance

Athens, Ga. (Feb. 17, 2020) – Early last June, Tom Bowen and his wife learned they’d be welcoming another grandchild in January. At that time, however, the family wasn’t sure Bowen would live until then. Today, he’s slowly regaining his strength and health after receiving a heart transplant and has been able to cuddle that newborn grandson he wasn’t sure he’d even have the chance to meet.  

It was May 2019 when Bowen’s heart failure journey first started. He’d been experiencing a cough for some time, blaming it on allergies, but one day things seemed to worsen.

“He was having trouble breathing and it wasn’t symptoms that we were used to seeing,” said Bowen’s wife Nancy. “I brought him to Piedmont Urgent Care, and the doctor there completed an EKG [or an electrocardiogram] to see how his heart was functioning.”

The EKG results came back abnormal. As a result, Bowen was rushed to Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center’s emergency room (ER). “When we got there, they asked me who my cardiologist was because they wanted to alert my doctor about my EKG results, but I didn’t even have a cardiologist. I’d never needed one,” Bowen said.

Bowen had always been very healthy. He exercised regularly, stayed up-to-date on his annual exams and had even had an EKG performed earlier that year as part of his physical. The results then were normal.

On this day, however, when Bowen arrived at the hospital, he was admitted to the Piedmont Athens Regional’s dedicated heart-failure unit, shocked to learn his heart wasn’t pumping properly.

“Our team found Mr. Bowen was experiencing heart failure, which is what happens when the heart can’t pump efficiently enough for blood to circulate throughout the body,” said Matthew Crim, M.D., cardiologist at Piedmont Heart Institute in Athens. “Unfortunately, there wasn’t a clear explanation as to what caused this to happen, other than the muscles around his heart had significantly weakened.”

Dr. Crim worked to treat Bowen’s heart; however, as his heart failure seemed to become more advanced and severe, Dr. Crim brought in Catherine Marti, M.D., cardiologist and heart failure specialist at Piedmont Heart in Athens, for guidance. As the only board-certified heart failure specialist in the Athens area, Dr. Marti manages the heart failure unit and its patients at Piedmont Athens Regional.

“It was clear his heart was continuing to decline very quickly, and we needed to find a treatment option that would work for Mr. Bowen,” Dr. Marti said. “During his hospital stay, we started treating him with an infusion that would help blood flow more easily throughout his body, but this treatment option is only intended to be a temporary solution.”

The infusion, however, didn’t provide the outcome that Bowen needed. Dr. Marti talked with him and his family about next options, some of which would require him to travel to Atlanta, home of Piedmont’s flagship hospital – something that Dr. Marti’s heart failure expertise had allowed the family to avoid up until this point.

They considered a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), a mechanical pump implanted to help the heart pump, as well as the possibility of adding Bowen’s name to the national heart transplant list. His age, however, was a limiting factor. “We learned that in order to be eligible for a heart transplant, Tom needed to be under the age of 70,” said Bowen’s wife Nancy. “He was already 69 and his birthday was a little more than a month away. We were running out of time.”

Based on these options, Dr. Marti sent the couple to be assessed by the LVAD and transplant team with Piedmont Heart Institute in Atlanta, where these more-advanced procedures can be completed. By this point, however, Bowen’s heart was no longer functioning on its own and his overall health was declining.

It was an extremely difficult time for the family, but one aspect of the situation offered a potential note of optimism. “Because Mr. Bowen was suffering from very advanced heart failure and he was at the end-stage of this disease, he was not only eligible for a heart transplant, but his name would instantly move to the top of the list. His need for a new heart was that great,” Dr. Marti said.   

Dr. Marti was able to consult with the transplant team at Piedmont Heart Institute in Atlanta, and within days of having his name added to the list, Bowen received a life-saving heart transplant – just three weeks before he turned 70.

“We’d been through so much in such a short amount of time, I still feel like I am coming to terms with what had happened to me,” Bowen said. “I’m not sure I would’ve survived had I not been as healthy as I was otherwise.” 

Bowen added, “When I think about this journey, I’m still so impressed by the incredible care I received. From the doctors in Athens and Atlanta, to the Piedmont Home Health nurses and cardiac rehabilitation services the hospital offers, everything was amazing. These teams made things so seamless for my family during such a difficult time, and the Piedmont Heart team are truly miracle workers.”   

Bowen and his wife are now able to enjoy their days together, as he slowly rebuilds his strength and gets used to his new heart while also relishing time with their family and beloved grandchildren.

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