Tim Heely, a retired Navy Admiral and F-18 pilot, had always been very active and diligent about his health. One night, after his daily five-mile run, Tim suddenly experienced pain in his arm and he had difficulty catching his breath. Not one to go to the doctor, Tim decided to wait it out, thinking maybe he had developed pneumonia.
But when he didn’t get better, his wife Cherie convinced him to seek help, and together, they went to MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital close to their home in Southern Maryland. Within just minutes, Tim was being transferred to their sister hospital, MedStar Washington Hospital Center, some 50 miles away in Washington, D.C. And once there, Tim had two new stents propping open his arteries before Cherie had parked the car and gotten to the waiting room.
What Tim had experienced was not pneumonia. It was a heart attack that had done so much damage, his heart could no longer do its job effectively.
New Wingmen, A New Heart
Throughout the next five days, Tim put his full trust in the heart and vascular team at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, birthplace of MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute (MHVI). As they worked diligently to stabilize his heart, Tim’s body rejected treatment after treatment. Ultimately, his physicians concluded that the only option left was to implant a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) to do the work of Tim’s heart until a new heart became available for transplantation.
Tim received the LVAD on May 17, 2011 and was fortunate to enjoy good health for two years. But ultimately, a complication meant a transplant was urgent, and almost two years to the day after his LVAD surgery, Tim received a new heart on May 7, 2013.
“As a Navy pilot, I took risks every day and loved it,” Tim explained. “I learned to trust my training, my aircraft and my wingmen. I had to do the same here. The doctors and nurses at MedStar were my new wingmen. Thanks to them, I am alive today – and I shouldn’t be.”
Tim remembers one specific instance during the beginning of his care when his body was rejecting multiple treatments. One resident was going above and beyond to stabilize him. She was not going to give up. Two years later, when Tim received his heart transplant, he recognized the voice of one of his doctors – the resident who had earlier given him so much dedicated attention. Tim expressed his gratitude, saying, “There were three or four times where someone really made a difference at a critical moment. If they hadn’t been there, I would have died. This was one of those times.”
Tim took several months off from work, but when he decided he did not want to continue the stressful 150-mile daily commute, he started his own company. He is also taking part in his own self-run “transplant triathlons.” He walks, kayaks and bikes multiple miles a day – although he says the kayak doesn’t see much use in the winter. “I feel really good. I want to be the person that didn’t let this get him down. I want people say, ‘Can you believe what this guy did?’”
Since his transplant, Tim has seen his three children marry, and he now has two grandsons and a granddaughter. He is running his company and working every day, but now his commute is just 30 miles and he is able to enjoy life much more. “I’m very grateful, and I feel in many ways better than I felt before. I’ve died and come back, and everything means much more to me. Every day I wake up and I thank God, my doctors and nurses, and my donor and the donor’s family. And I thank my wife who stood by me throughout this experience.”
Tim has also served as a mentor for other patients receiving care at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “I’ve mentored about a dozen people who were about to get an LVAD or a heart transplant. I like telling them that there is hope, and showing them there is an awesome life ahead of them.”
Tim shares that getting a heart transplant “…was a very good learning experience on so many levels. I know my mind and my body are capable of more than I imagined. I know my friends and family are behind me. And I know I am making a positive difference. Sunrises are more beautiful, the air smells sweeter. Life is good.”