Thanks to a Heart Transplant, More Active Future a Possibility

Partnership with Regional Cardiologist Leads to Transplant at Just the Right Time

By Morgan deBlecourt
January 15, 2021
John Welch stands outside

John Welch, 34, smiles in Durham, NC.

Asheville, NC resident John Welch had gotten used to sitting on the sidelines. As a child, he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy -- a disease that made his heart muscle too thick to pump blood properly. Physical activity left him tired, breathless, and weak. Medications, devices, and two major open-heart surgeries weren’t enough to keep Welch healthy. In the summer of 2020, Welch’s local cardiologist referred him to Duke for a heart transplant evaluation. Welch, 34, received his transplant less than six months later, and now he’s looking forward to living a more active life with his loved ones.

Heart Disease Makes Early Life Difficult

John Welch was born with a genetic mutation that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a type of heart disease that is relatively common and only causes mild symptoms in most people. Welch’s case was more serious. As a teenager, he struggled to keep up with his friends.

“My friends would go hiking and stuff like that. For me, it just was not much fun. I was always stuck at the back of the pack, left behind,” Welch said. “Fatigue would come on really fast. That was always a cue for me to stop or slow down. Whatever I was doing, I’d have to pump the brakes.” 

Complex Surgeries Buy Time

Welch was 16 when he had his first open-heart surgery in Minnesota in 2002. The procedure, called a septal myectomy, created more space in his heart so it could pump blood more efficiently. He underwent surgery again in 2014 to repair a leaky heart valve. Complications quickly landed him at Duke for lifesaving ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) therapy, which oxygenated his blood outside of the body and allowed his heart and lungs to heal.

As Condition Deteriorates, Heart Transplant Becomes Best Option

By the spring of 2020, Welch’s heart was failing. His heart disease, now heart failure, had progressed to the most severe stage. His local cardiologist, Dr. LaVone Smith, MD, of Asheville Cardiology Associates, knew it was time to pursue a heart transplant. She referred him to Duke. Welch received his new heart just two weeks after being admitted to Duke. Jacob Schroder, MD, performed the transplant surgery. 

According to Adam DeVore, MD, Welch’s transplant cardiologist at Duke, timing was key to the procedure being successful. “Because Dr. Smith didn’t hesitate to reach out, we were able to get John the transplant he needed so he could go back to living his life instead of spending six months in the hospital,” DeVore said. “John would not have done as well if she hadn't called when she did.”

Looking to the Future

Since his transplant, Welch has a lot more energy. And he’s going to need it, because he has a lot to look forward to. He and his fiancé Kayla are planning to get married next year. She even bought him a pair of rollerblades to try out soon. In the meantime, Welch is committed to fully recovering from the transplant and keeping his new heart healthy. 

“I've been dealing with this heart stuff for quite a long time, and I've developed a pretty thick skin about it,” Welch said. “My approach is to take what life gives you as it comes. I just take it in stride.” 

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