Transplant recipient and his wife honor organ donor at their wedding.
Barrett Younghans is at the gym, pedaling a stationary bike at a pretty good clip as he tells his story.
It’s the story of a broken heart, a new heart and the love that surrounds both.
Younghans went from being a three-sport athlete at age 17 to being a couch potato playing video games within a week’s time.
He was at Disney World with his parents, Barry and Lisa, and three sisters a decade ago when he first became ill, and then things quickly spiraled out of control.
The problem was his heart. An echocardiogram revealed dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart becomes enlarged and cannot pump blood effectively.
“I didn’t realize how sick I was,” said the now-26-year-old teacher and coach at Goshen High School.
He was admitted to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, nearly three hours away from his home in Goshen, Indiana.
“The day after I got to Riley, they said I was going to need a heart transplant. I was 17.”
The teen was on the transplant list for two years. In that time, he finished high school, shifting his focus to academics rather than athletics, he said. He started college at Valparaiso University but was forced to withdraw six weeks in when he became too ill.
He was put on a ventricular assist device, a mechanical pump for people with advanced heart failure. Two days before Valentine’s Day in 2012, Younghans received his new heart at IU Health Methodist Hospital at the age of 19. Dr. Mark Turrentine was his surgeon.
The hardest part of the process might be waiting for a heart, but adjusting to taking several medications and learning the symptoms of rejection and infection post-transplant all require vigilance, explained Aly Darroca, Younghans’ transplant coordinator.
“It’s a lot for a young person to have to handle and try to go back to school,” Darroca said. “Barrett has adapted well with the help of his parents. They have encouraged him to be very independent, and he has done that.”
Calling him an “exceptional patient,” Darroca said he is self-motivated and ambitious. “It’s really nice to see someone grow up and do well. We are all so very proud of him.”
With a new heart and a new outlook, Younghans was determined to repay his donor by living a life worthy of such a gift.
That’s one of the reasons he goes to the gym just about every day.
“Some people struggle for motivation, but I spent two years of my life playing video games, being inside all the time,” he said. “Getting to the gym for me is easier than a lot of people because I have a lot to be thankful for and I want to keep myself healthy.”
After the transplant, he went back to college, graduating in 2015. Then he went back to his high school – as a history teacher and swim coach. And last month, he got married. His wife, Dr. Chelsea (Kiehl) Younghans, has only known her husband with the heart he has now. And it’s a good one.
The couple did a triathlon in August in honor of Younghans’ donor, a triathlete. And they made him an honorary groomsman, placing a photo of him at the head table with the rest of the wedding party. Younghans has never met his donor’s family, but they began communicating via email a few years ago, after the family agreed to establish contact.
Any communication with donor families is first done through the Indiana Donor Network and the donor’s organ procurement organization where the donor hospital is located, explained Michele Spencer, with IU Health Transplant. A recipient can prepare a letter and give it to his or her transplant social worker to give to the Indiana Donor Network, where it is reviewed.
“I have a ton of respect for the family and I’m a huge advocate of organ donation,” Younghans said.
In fact, his father, principal of the school where he teaches, flies an organ donation flag outside the school every day.
“I feel obligated to the donor’s family, to my family, to the doctors and to other people who didn’t get organs. I wouldn’t be living up to my donor’s name if I’m not taking care of the gift he gave me.”
–- By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist