NEWARK, NJ — Getting through the coronavirus pandemic has been tough going for many New Jersey residents. But recovering from a heart transplant at the same time? That was the stuff “miracles” are made of, Bernard China of Newark says.
Last month, China celebrated the anniversary of a life-saving transplant he got at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. The experience has given the 58-year-old a new worldview, as well as a deep appreciation for the donor and medical team that made it all possible.
China, his wife, Constance, and their five children got a chance to reflect on the Dec. 30 surgery, which took place last year amid a maelstrom of viral activity and visitation bans at hospitals across the state.
“This Christmas was extra special for me as I was able to watch the kids open their presents,” China said. “The last two years, I had to watch on FaceTime from the hospital, and it just wasn’t the same.”
“I feel blessed beyond belief to be alive and with those I love,” he added.
China now calls Dec. 30 his “second birthday” to commemorate the date of his transplant. And part of that anniversary is remembering the selfless decision made by his organ donor.
China said he proudly supports the efforts of organizations such as the NJ Sharing Network, which raises awareness about registering as organ and tissue donors to help save lives.
“Organ donors are heroes,” he said. “I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for my donor. I am extremely blessed to have this second chance to live life to its fullest.”
According to the NJ Sharing Network, China’s harrowing experience began in August 2017, when he woke up during the night and found it hard to breathe. Alarmed, he told his wife he was heading to the hospital, but encouraged her to stay home with their children.
The results were troubling. Tests showed fluid buildup in his lungs… a sign of heart failure. Diuretic medication drained fluid from his body, but the treatment wasn’t enough.
China was referred to the advanced heart failure treatment and transplant program at Newark Beth Israel, which gave him a serious diagnosis.
“When Bernard came to us, his heart was very weak, and he was short of breath in his normal day-to-day activities,” heart transplant cardiologist Saurabh Kapoor said.
Kapoor said that a weak heart doesn’t supply the body with enough oxygen-rich blood. As a result, the body begins to retain fluid, which can back up into different organs, including the lungs. Normally, the heart’s pumping chamber ejects 65 to 75 percent of its blood with each heartbeat. But China’s heart was pumping just 8 percent.
Oral medications helped at first, but by November 2018, the blood pumping capacity became so poor that he was put on an intravenous drug administered continuously to help his heart contract. And at that point, he became a serious heart transplant candidate.
Unfortunately, China also had prostate cancer, which required four months of radiation treatment before a transplant could be considered. During that time, he also had a stroke – another serious complication.
“For a long time, I wasn’t eligible for a transplant because of all the other stuff going on,” he recalled.
Finally, around Labor Day 2020, China learned that he qualified for the transplant list.
“Bernard was on the cusp of cardiogenic shock, when organs can start to fail,” Kapoor said. “He was very sick and needed to stay in the hospital.”
Due to the pandemic, family visits consisted of China looking out his eighth-floor window to see Constance and the kids waving from the parking lot.
On the evening of Dec. 29, 2020, China had been despondent on a call with his wife, still waiting for a transplant miracle. She urged him to rely on the faith they shared – she as a preacher and he as a singer with the Mighty Royal Travelers.
“I didn’t want to hear what she was saying because I just wanted to go home,” he said. But his wife kept positive, insisting that a miracle was going to come.
Then – at 1:30 a.m. – he got a call from his doctor.
“Mr. China… we have your heart,” Kapoor told him.
China said it feels great to get back to many of his normal activities, such as attending church services and singing with the Mighty Royal Travelers, a gospel group that has performed across the United States and has songs on the Spotify streaming music app.
“I’ve been feeling great,” he said. “I knew that I couldn’t do much the first three months after transplant, but I am doing a lot more now. The other day, I used my leaf blower for quite a while and when I finished, I was in some pain – but it wasn’t too bad at all.”
“I’m looking to get back not just to 100 percent, but 200 percent, where I come back stronger than ever,” he added.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, nearly 4,000 New Jersey residents are waiting for a life-saving transplant. One person in New Jersey dies every three days waiting for a transplant. Just one organ and tissue donor can save eight lives and enhance the lives of over 75 people. To learn more, get involved and register as an organ and tissue donor, visit www.NJSharingNetwork.org.
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