Finding a Heart: New Year, New Heart Episode 3

Would Porter Lyons have a new heart by breakfast?

Dr. Nicholas Smedira

At 2 a.m. on Dec. 31, 2011, Doug Lyons’ thoughts were drifting. He thought about the Christmas dinner his family had missed when his son Porter was rushed to Cleveland Clinic with a failing heart. He thought of the Cleveland Browns-Baltimore Ravens game he and Porter were planning to attend.

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Most of all, he hoped that by breakfast his son would have a new heart.

At 2:30 a.m., cheers went up from family and friends in the waiting room as they heard the news that doctors had found the right heart for Porter, who was suffering from cardiomyopathy. Surgery was imminent. Porter himself received the news from his girlfriend, Abby. He would have trouble recalling the events that followed, but he would remember this moment with absolute clarity.

Fast fact

4.7 months: The average wait time for a transplant at Cleveland Clinic. Read about two former patients who help current patients deal with the wait, which can be a lonely time.

Heart transplant resources

So would Doug. It was a flashback, since he had received similar news from his wife, Karen, 25 years ago at Cleveland Clinic, before he had his own heart transplant. “That was something I never forgot, when Karen told me that I was getting a heart,” Doug said. “You know, she came to me in the middle of the night, the lights were low, she leaned over and almost looked like an angel when she said, ‘They have a heart for you.’”

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Watching Porter absorb the same news, he saw a light go on in his son’s eyes. They had been glazed over from hours and days of counting ceiling tiles, but now they looked hopeful.

Why choose a transplant?

Getting to this point had not been easy. Surgeon Nicholas Smedira, MD, and other doctors had debated whether Porter could use an advanced “assist” device to help his heart function, but in the end, transplant seemed like the best scenario for success. That decision is always difficult, Dr. Smedira said, because the life expectancy for 50 percent of patients who receive a transplant around age 20 is only 12 more years or so. But Porter had a strong model of success in his dad, and it seemed unlikely that his damaged heart could recover on its own.

“Porter himself was not inclined to have an assist device; he had seen how well his dad had done,” Dr. Smedira said. “So we decided to go with a heart transplant.”

Dr. Smedira described what they looked for in a donor heart: blood type compatibility, a relatively young heart, the right size for Porter’s body, with no coronary artery disease, no valve disease and no signs of heart attack. Within a week of Porter’s emergency helicopter flight, Cleveland Clinic found a perfect match.

Within an hour of getting the news, Porter was prepped for surgery.

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