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Change of Heart: CMU student thriving after transplant

Garrett Finkbeiner got his new heart in the middle of the pandemic
Posted at 5:44 PM, Jun 16, 2021

WXMI — It’s a story about a change of heart, quite literally.

At the beginning of March, while COVID cases in Michigan were still zero, Central Michigan University student Garrett Finkbeiner began experiencing strange symptoms.

“I was nauseous, trouble keeping down fluids, throwing up, really not feeling that great,” said the now 21-year-old.

Twice that month, the second time on March 12th two days after the state’s first confirmed coronavirus cases, Finkbeiner checked himself into the hospital. Doctors originally believed it was an abdominal issue at first, but medication didn’t work, and they swiftly figured out the problem the second time Finkbeiner came in – heart failure.

“They ran a few more scans and they found out that I had a very enlarged heart,” said Finkbeiner. “[The doctors] actually called my parents that night when they were one the road and said, ‘keep your phones on you because your son might go into cardiac arrest tonight.’ They weren’t sure if I was going to go through the night or not.”

Over the course of the next three months, Finkbeiner lay in a hospital bed heavily medicated and awaiting a transplant. He was rejected the first time and put into two medically-induced comas, each for about a week.

“I say I slept from April to June,” joked Finkbeiner. “We weren't able to comprehend the enormity of that situation, of what that of what the diagnosis meant.”

In June, Finkbeiner received a heart transplant. In the days and weeks after, his parents visited one-at-a-time because of COVID restrictions, explaining to him sometimes more than once a day what had happened.

“It was shock,” said Finkbeiner, “then quite a bit of confusion and me wanting to ask questions, but I couldn’t at the time.”

Unable to talk, walk, read or write, Finkbeiner was bedridden for a long while. Doctors never did figure out what caused his heart failure – of which he has no family history. And that’s common, according to Finkbeiner’s specialist Dr. David Fermin, a cardiologist Spectrum Health.

“In young people very often, at least half of the time, if they go into severe heart failure we can’t find an exact cause,” said Dr. Fermin.

Fermin said the risks of a transplant in a hospital setting during COVID were extremely risky.

“It was much more difficult to know whether potential organ donors might’ve been exposed to COVID,” he said. “Once you get a heart transplant, you’re on very strong immune-suppressing medication.”

Leaving Finkbeiner vulnerable. Eventually he recovered and was moved to Mary Free Bed for rehab in early-July. Slowly and steadily, he’s learned basic motor functions, advancing to normalcy one step at a time. But normal nay never come for Finkbeiner. One of his arteries was removed in the surgery – the same artery that alerts your heart to pump more blood during activity.

“Like a normal person, when you run it’s like, ‘oh hey I’m running beat faster,’” he said. “I would play with my dog and I’d be running around with him and I’d be sitting there and I’m exhausted like whew… and I had only played with him for 30 seconds.”

All in all, the operation was live-changing – and life-saving – for the 21-year-old. Now having graduated from Mary Free Bed, the next big graduation will come next spring when Finkbeiner walks the stage at Central Michigan. During his second coma, he received word he had made the Honor Roll for last spring semester.

Not surprisingly, Finkbeiner has now become a huge advocate for organ donation.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand how many lives you can affect and save through that,” he said. “You can leave a legacy beyond your death. You can help out families that will remember you forever.”