Tom Berryhill - Heart Transplant Recipient
When I was 21 years old I had heart valve replacement surgery. I was in my junior year at Cal Poly. My heart had enlarged and I had darn near died! I had the valve replacement and that was pretty much the end of my sports career. Even though the operation was successful my heart was enlarged and never came down to a normal size.
Being the athlete I was, my heart only worked good when I was in shape, so I continued to be very active. I did everything from handball to tennis to triathlons, and I basically wore the heart out and I started losing elasticity in it. About the time that I ran for office in 1996,(California State Assembly, District 26) the number one target assembly seat. I still had the valve in place but my heart was getting weaker. It’s a miracle I didn’t drop dead on that campaign!
Around that time I had gone to see my local cardiologist. I had gone through a viral infection and I had little energy and wasn’t feeling good for six months, but the day that I had gone to see that doctor, honest to God I felt great. My doctor said, “Tom, you might think about actually enjoying the rest of your life. You ought to think about getting on a heart transplant list.” It’s not something you just think about doing on a whim… basically it was just something I didn’t want to do.
In the late 90’s I was really suffering - I was on oxygen and couldn’t figure out what was going on. At that point I knew I needed a transplant. I’ll never forget sitting in Redwood hospital and my cardiologist said, “Tom, I bet if I had a heart for you right now you’d take it.” And I said, “Yes!” My local cardiologist knew Dr. Ernie really well and liked the Heart Transplant program at CPMC, so he recommended me to the program and put me on the fast track. So at that point we go through the evaluation process. The evaluation was fairly quick, I kept having little problems here and there and kept going back and finally I qualified to be listed for a heart transplant. I was still having problems when they called me back up and said ‘your liver enzymes are off and we want to take a test and make sure you’re okay.’ I can remember going back to the hospital for a check up and saying to my mother and wife, “You know what? I hope they just keep me.” We went up to Cal Pacific that night. I spent the night at the hospital and we ran some tests. Ernie (Dr. Haeusslein) asked me how I was feeling since he was going to discharge me. I told him that usually I’m climbing the walls wanting to get out of these places, but for some reason something just didn’t feel quite right. He told me, “No problem Tom. We’ll keep you another day, we’ll evaluate you.” And you know what, that very same night my defibrillator went off. They gave me dobutamine and kept me there in the hospital. That defibrillator hit me a total of 18 times in a week!
By that time, I was now listed and waiting for a heart. I had lost a lot of weight. I got down to 133 pounds, and my natural weight is 165 to 170. I realized I had wasted a lot of time by waiting to join the program. If I had realized how much technology had advanced and how much they could do for me at Cal Pacific, I would have joined the program a lot sooner. It’s only by God’s grace that I got through that time.
So I was in the hospital and when I first went in there I thought I’d be out in a week or two. A couple weeks, then a month, then two months go by, and I’m still there waiting for a heart. I’ll never forget talking to another one of the patients who was also waiting for a heart. I told him one day, "Here we are, and as much as I should be getting a heart you just don’t know, I might be here six months!" Then it was a waiting game. You get pretty focused and you get pretty close to God because you have tough days. We had rented an apartment in San Francisco and my wife had moved up and she’d come see me every day. I had a little four month old baby, and here I am just fighting for my life. At one point I told my wife Loretta, "Why don’t you go back home to the ranch? It’s not the operation that’s going to break us it’s the flat in downtown San Francisco!” She finally agreed and came back to me the next day and then said, “Tom, this is where I want to be; I want to be here with you.” Mother’s Day was coming up, so I told her to go home for Mother’s Day, that maybe we’d get a change of luck.
I had seen three different hearts go through our ward so I knew what to expect, but I also know these people were a lot calmer than I was. I had prayed every day that when I was called to get a heart that I would already have nighttime meds and that it would be a fast process. Sure enough a quarter after midnight they told me, ‘Mr. Berryhill, we’ve got a heart for you.’ That was Mother’s Day. I called Loretta, and she seemed very calm; I was very calm too. I called my mom and told her, ‘I’m getting a heart.’ It was the fastest trip from the valley to San Francisco in the whole world! In 45 minutes they were prepping me and wheeling me down to the operating room. I had also heard a lot of stories about people getting there and not getting the heart. So psychologically you have to be prepared. It was quite a moment getting in the wheelchair and getting ready to go prep. It’s a day that you pray for but a day that scares you too! Ernie is the most soothing doc; he’s the one that prepped me. He was the one who kept me calm; he’s so good! He dealt so well with the staff and the nurses. I was waiting for them to get me on the gurney and give me drugs. Just as they were wheeling me in to the OR I went under. The advice that I would give patients is that this is life and death. When I went down with the defibrillation problems I was down on my back for two weeks. I’ll never forget Ernie saying, “Tom, we’ve got this regulated. We’ve got the recipe right but you’ve got to start walking, even if it’s just to the door and back.” When you’re off your feet that long, wow! Just standing up I was shaking! I made it to that door and barely made it back. I was exhausted. I went up and worked out on a treadmill everyday for a month. The ones that don’t make it are the patients that don’t stay active, don’t get up and do exercises like the doc required. They pretty much gave up on life. But in my group all five of us have gotten hearts.
I talk to Ernie every once in a while now, which is a good thing because I haven’t had any problems. I hope to be elected to the legislature in 2006. My life is as full as it was before transplant. And I’m much healthier. My wife wishes she could keep up with me! I’m almost “a too good to believe story.” I thank God everyday. My little daughter is now four years old. Being able to be with my little daughter, every day was a beautiful day. She’ll wake up now and say, “Daddy it’s a beautiful day!” And I say, "It sure is Sam."
I thank that staff at California Pacific; I know there’s good staff all over California. But I just can’t say enough about the whole team over there, they are excellent!
California Pacific's Heart and Vascular Center
California Pacific's Heart and Vascular Center is supported by one of the best heart hospital/center networks in the USA, offering quality, comprehensive patient-centered cardiovascular care by a team of top heart surgeons and physicians with leading-edge technology. Serving the entire San Francisco Bay Area, including San Francisco and Marin County, as well as the entire Northern California region, our team has many of the best cardiovascular surgeons and physicians in California and the United States.