Meet Jerron Hargrove and Jesse Torrence, two young men who underwent heart transplantations at VCU and are now back to living their lives.
At a recent checkup, transplant patient Jerron Hargrove shared his story. “I was born with an irregular heartbeat, but never had any problems with it, I played sports all my life, joined the military.” About 6-7 months after completing his Marine Corps service, he blacked out. “And that’s when I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.” He was 21.
Jerron was put on a pacemaker with an internal cardiac defibrillator and IV inotropes. After about two and half years, his health deteriorated and he was admitted to VCU Medical Center, where he received care for eight months before receiving a total artificial heart. “I was on Big Blue [a 400-pound console that drives the artificial heart] for six months in the hospital, then I received my heart transplant on August 31, 2010, two weeks before my 25th birthday.”
Surgeons Daniel Tang, M.D., and Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., and cardiologists Keyur Shah, M.D., and Michael Hess, M.D., provided his care. “Those were my all-star doctors.” Additionally, he speaks highly of his nursing team and support staff. “Everyone that I encountered was grand. Some came on their off days just to hang out.”
In his long months in the hospital, “I was on close watch, I couldn’t go outside, I couldn’t leave the floor. I think that was the most difficult thing, not being able to feel the outside world. And me being young and never being sick before and it happening so fast, it was very hard to adjust to.”
For the surgeries, “I was nervous of course, but it was out of my hands. I just wanted it to be over. At one point, I was at a depression phase that I stopped fighting. But my team of doctors and nurses encouraged me, and I trusted them.”
After his transplant, he returned to school, and completed training in barbering and culinary arts, and now works full-time. He is an active volunteer, visiting with other transplant patients who need encouragement. Last spring, he threw out the first pitch at VCU Pauley Heart Center Night at the Richmond Squirrels game. “I try not to hold back on any of my activities.”
Six years after his transplant, “I’m doing fine,” he said. “I think everything is on a good path now.”
In his August 1, 2016, email thanking his Pauley doctors, nurses and staff, Jesse Torrence said, “Today marks five years since my heart transplant. I don’t think they make a good Hallmark card for this sort of thing.”
“It is a privilege to be part of Jerron and Jesse’s care. While this is perhaps true in all of medicine, the heart is special. It is inspiring to see individuals faced with such dire circumstances persevere and recover.”
—Daniel Tang, M.D.
Torrence was 31 and living in Washington, D.C., when he developed shortness of breath, stomach pain and a cough. He went to the doctor, where because of the fluid in his lungs, “they thought it was pneumonia.” He returned home, but even with treatments, the problem got worse. With the coughing, “at night, I had to sleep on the kitchen table with my head down” because it was the only comfortable position. Finally, he drove himself to the emergency room at Sibley Memorial Hospital, where he was diagnosed with heart failure, and Lifeflighted to MedStar Washington Hospital. Doctors diagnosed him with giant cell myocarditis, a very serious heart inflammation. “It is fatal to 90% of the people who do not have a transplant.” He believes that his contraction of Lyme disease the summer before may have triggered the infection.
He had several surgeries to remove a clot “the size of a tennis ball” from his heart. On Mother’s Day, he was put on ECMO, “they didn’t think my lungs would survive,” he said. Doctors put him into a medically induced coma for six weeks, during which, he experienced a stroke. Finally, though his health improved enough for him to be transported to a place where he could get an artificial heart. “I woke up in June 2011 at VCU.”
The CICU team tended to him, waiting for his lungs and health to improve. During this time, his family and girlfriend, Oana Cheta, relocated to Richmond, to stay with him around the clock. “I wasn’t strong enough to push the call button.”
He gradually improved, and two months later, he had a successful heart transplant surgery, performed by Kasirajan and Tang. He appreciates the work of his surgeons and Keyur Shah, M.D., and Richard Cooke, M.D., who provided his post-care. Nurse practitioner Maureen Flattery “was a pillar for me,” he said, expressing gratitude to the incredible nurses, doctors, physical therapists and many others who cared for him.
Now in good health, he married Cheta in August 2012. The couple lives in Chicago, where they work for nonprofits and are raising their son, Sasha, who was born November 3, 2015. “He’s the light of our lives.”
In his letter, he attached photos of his family and noted, “I could spend years searching for the right words to say thank you, again, for not giving up on me, for dedicating your life to health care/medicine, for listening to and rallying around my family and each other, for keeping faith with us however you knew how…”
“Or I could just shut up and share these photos, which, by my calculations, are worth about 15,000 words and capture best why I’m most grateful to still be here.”