September 14, 2014. Reported here. Visalia, CA - Marco Vaca is mindful of his heart. Often, when he wakes up in the morning, he puts his hand to his chest to make sure it's still beating. In 2013, he received a heart transplant from a young donor at Stanford University. "I can't believe I have someone else's heart in me," he said. "It's a weird feeling." It's not the first time Vaca has escaped death. When he was a young child, he beat leukemia but the treatment damaged his heart leaving him with congestive heart failure at 32. Vaca, now 41, said he he feels like different person."I'm more calm," he said. "I look at life differently."
When he left Stanford a year ago, his doctors told him to live life to the full and that's what he tries to do each day.That includes going to the gym for an hour and a half four days a week, playing golf and competing in occasional 5K runs, which he walks. In May, he participated in the Color Vibe 5K at Visalia Riverway Sports Park and he's signing up to walk in the Visalia Runners' Harvest Run 5K Oct. 4 at the Lifestyle Center. Vaca doesn't know much about the person whose heart beats in his own chest. He has not yet heard back from the donor's family after writing them a letter of condolence and gratitude.
When he was only 20 months old, Vaca was diagnosed with leukemia. He received chemotherapy and radiation treatment at City of Hope in Los Angeles and by 1976, he was in remission through 1988 when he was deemed cured. He had no medical problems throughout his high school years and graduated from Mt. Whitney in 1992. From there, he became a firefighter and an EMT, working for 16 years before he had to quit due to his declining health from congestive heart failure, a direct result of the treatment that saved his life earlier.
As his lung cavity filled with fluid, his heart work harder, he said. He continued to work part-time as a firefighter for Tulare County Fire Department and full-time as an EMT for the city of Exeter until January 2011 until he became disabled. "I toughed it through the best that I could," he said. He estimates that he saved thousands of lives throughout his career by caring for other people. He performed CPR on infants to elderly people. Some were electrocuted, others in bad accidents and some he cut out of cars. "I had a lot of people care for me when I was small," he said. "[Being a firefighter/EMT] was payback." Bringing them back from the dead was rewarding. "I'd feel great to save a person's life," he said. "It's rewarding to see someone come back."
A new heart
After being on the heart transplant list for five and a half months, he received a phone call as he was leaving Visalia July 8, 2013 to go to San Francisco for a Giants game against the Mets at AT&T Park. "Right when I walked out the door, the phone rang," he said. A heart was available for him. This was the fourth time he'd received such a phone call. The first three times didn't work out because each time prior, the hearts didn't match his blood and body type or were not clean, as in drug free. The call came in the early afternoon. By 7:15 p.m. he was on the operating table and by 7:30 p.m. he was knocked out.
Because of complications, his surgery lasted more than 20 hours. In an operating room about the size of a living room, seven surgeons, an anesthesiologist and nurses worked to save his life. "Do not let him go," Vaca was told the director of cardiology said. His new heart was rejected twice by his body. And at one point, the doctors massaged his new heart for an hour and 15 minutes before it started beating in his chest cavity. After his surgery, he was put into a medically-induced coma and was placed on a ventilator. After two weeks, the ventilator was removed and he woke up in the intensive care unit. He remembers feeling drowsy. "I didn't know a person, place or thing," he said. He didn't know who the president was or the people around him. These symptoms lasted another month. "Slowly but surely it's all coming back to me," he said.
One thing he remembered about a week after he woke up from his coma was very poignant. In a floating motion, as if on a big cloud, he said he recalled angels opening up heaven's gates. "You get to see anyone you've known who's passed away," he said. He remembers seeing more than 10 family members, friends and past co-workers who have died. "Then all of a sudden they said I wasn't ready to come and join them," he said. "Then it faded out."
Vaca is happy to still be alive. "Somebody wants me here for a reason," he said. "They brought me back from the dead." Before he was released from Stanford, the medical staff gave him a large stuffed red heart pillow signed by the nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists who took care of him. He said he still hugs it every once in a while. For one of the nurses who signed the pillow, Vaca was her first heart transplant patient. He said he made her nervous because he's an EMT.
"I drilled all the nurses there," he said. After his transplant, he had to relearn how to walk and how to take a shower. "They disconnect your heart and you lose all functions from your body," he said. Because his hands were swollen and he trembled, he couldn't even unwrap a straw. For three weeks on the cardiac floor, he had to be fed by someone else.
A few months after he returned to Visalia in October 2013, he signed up for personal training at Man Cave Fitness in Visalia. Vaca was very frail when he started training in February and his workouts were adjusted accordingly. Gym owner Phillip Gutierrez said seeing Vaca improve during six months of training inspired him. "It should give everyone hope," he said. Gutierrez, 37, is trying to get on the heart transplant list at Stanford because he suffers from a congenital heart defect. In his short life, he's had three open heart surgeries to replace pulmonary bands and valves.
Seeing Vaca improve after getting a heart transplant gives Gutierrez hope, he said. "I'm ready," Gutierrez said. By May, Vaca signed up for the Color Vibe 5K. He walked with Gutierrez. "[Vaca] made it look easy," Gutierrez said. After an hour and 15 minutes on the course, Vaca crossed the finish line. As his friends jumped in the air for a photo opportunity, he remained standing on the ground with one arm raised in the air to show enthusiasm. "I just did it to see if I could do it," he said.
Vaca works out four days a week by walking on a treadmill for 15 minutes and then lifting light weights for an hour and 15 minutes. He's preparing for his next 5K — the Visalia Runner's Harvest Run. He thinks he can beat his earlier time. "It's only walking 3 miles," he said. "People walk that everyday." His immediate plans include continuing his workouts at the gym, playing golf and walking in the Harvest Run 5K Oct. 4. "I'll be ready by then," he said.