Like most brothers, Don and Keith Elam shared many things: a boyhood spent in small-town Texas, family milestones and celebrations, and starting their own lives with their own families. But one day in 2020, they shared the same startling news. They both needed a heart transplant.
“We were at different doctors, in different towns, on the same day, both being told we needed heart transplants,” Don said. “It was unbelievable.”
Heart disease runs in the family
About half of all adults in the US—around 128 million people—are living with some form of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association. In a significant percentage of those people, heart disorders may be inherited from their parents or other close relatives.
Keith and Don had a family history of cardiac problems. Their mother had heart surgery, and a younger brother, Jerry, had a triple bypass before he passed away in 2016.
Today, both brothers are thriving, grateful for another chance at life and thankful to have each other through it all. This is their story.
Keith had his own history of heart problems, including atrial fibrillation (AFib), also known as irregular heartbeat, and a valve repair. In 2018, his doctor suggested an ablation—a procedure that creates scar tissue in the heart to help regulate its beating. But he couldn’t have that procedure, and his problems continued.
“I had a lot of trouble with Afib. The doctors tried several things, but finally they said, ‘You’re going to need a heart transplant.’ So I went through all the tests to get on the transplant list.”
In September 2020, after waiting only three and a half weeks, Keith became the 1,000th person to receive a heart transplant at Baylor University Medical Center. His recovery went more smoothly than his medical team expected. He was in ICU for just three days. The day after he was moved out of intensive care, he was up and walking.
“I walked three times a day, 100 laps a day around the nurses’ station,” Keith said. “They’d all wave as I went past.”
Two and a half weeks later, Keith went home to continue his recovery. He had a few setbacks, including a bout with COVID-19 in January 2021. But June 2021, he had regained most of his strength.
“I never thought it would come out this way,” Keith said. “My doctors and nurses were amazing. It was all a blessing from God.”
Don didn’t think he’d be eligible for a transplant because he’d been diagnosed with lupus in 1975.
“But my doctors sent me for some tests, and the results weren’t good,” Don said. “So they sent me to see someone at Baylor University Medical Center.”
His medical team implanted a defibrillator to help Don’s heart beat regularly, and he went home to await a transplant. But one day, while sitting at home playing a video game, his defibrillator shocked him once, then again. The device is designed to recognize irregular heart patterns and shock the rhythm back to normal.
“It’d never done that before,” he said. “I called my wife, and we decided I should go to the hospital in town.”
The defibrillator shocked Don several more times after they reached the hospital. Doctors there sent him back to Baylor University Medical Center via ambulance.
Don’s heart rate was extremely low when he got to Baylor University Medical Center.
“They told me that I couldn’t wait for a transplant,” he said. “They told me they were going to do an LVAD.”
An LVAD (left ventricular assist device) is a small battery-operated pump that helps the main pumping chamber of the heart push blood throughout the body. The operation went smoothly, but Don’s recovery was more complicated than his brother’s had been. He was in the ICU for a month, then in the hospital and rehabilitation for three more months. Finally, Don built up enough strength to return home.
Walking the road to recovery
Today, a little more than two years after his transplant, Keith and his heart are thriving. Lab results from a recent doctor visit were good, and he says he’s in better shape than he was before the surgery.
“I play golf three or four times a week,” he said. “Before the transplant, I couldn’t walk nine holes. Now I’m walking all 18 without any problem.”
Don finished his cardiac rehab program and is also doing well. Both brothers have made lifestyle changes to support their newfound health, working lots of walking and a healthier diet into their daily routines. They check in with their doctors regularly and follow their medical teams’ instructions to the letter. And they urge others to do the same, not just to recover from heart disease but to help prevent it from ever developing.
“That’s one of the main things I learned from all this,” Keith said. “Only God knows how long you’re going to live, but He expects me to take care of myself, too. I have to do my part to keep going.”
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About the author
This content has been written or reviewed by a member of the Baylor Scott & White Health medical staff.