Ben Collins: Heart Transplant Patient Story

Ben Collins

The Challenge: Cardiomyopathy

In 1995, Ben Collins, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, noticed that he was having increasing difficulty going up a flight or two of stairs at the Cathedral of Learning. His breathing was labored, and the task — typically simple for a 19-year-old — was becoming more and more of a chore.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” he says.

A few weeks later, Ben went to student health and had an x-ray. By the time he arrived back at his dorm room, he had a voice mail message from student health. He returned the call and was advised to go to the Emergency Department immediately.

Ben was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease that weakens and enlarges the heart muscle.

“I wasn’t thinking anything like this,” he says. “I just thought I had a cold or something.”

There was a history of cardiac disease in Ben’s family. His grandfather and great uncle had passed away in their early 30s from coronary complications, and his older brother had received a heart transplant just a year before.

The Path to the UPMC Heart Transplant Program

After a thorough evaluation, doctors discovered Ben had ventricular tachycardia, a condition that resulted in his heart racing at dangerously high rates. To treat the condition, he underwent surgery to receive an automatic implantable cardioverter defibrillator (AICD), a device that delivers shocks to the heart in order to treat irregular heartbeats.

“It actually shocked me the first day it was implanted. Over the next two years, it shocked me a total of eight times,” Ben says.

Just over two years after that initial surgery, during September of his final semester at Pitt, Ben began experiencing tunnel vision, which is described as the loss of peripheral vision. Given his and his family’s history of heart problems, and keenly aware that something was definitely not right, Ben made an appointment with his cardiologist. During that appointment he was told he wasn’t going home until he had a heart transplant.

He was just 22 at the time. The news was devastating. Up until that point, he had been focused on graduation. The last thing on his mind was another hospitalization, let alone something as serious as a heart transplant.

“I knew my brother made it through, so I found confidence from his strength to move ahead,” he says.

The Solution: Ventricular Assist Device (VAD)

Ben was admitted to UPMC Presbyterian and remained there until his transplant in November. He was put on a ventricular assist device (VAD) to help support his heart function and blood oxygenation.

“It saved my life,” Ben says.

Because Ben’s family lives in eastern Pennsylvania, they were not always able to be at the hospital with him.

“The nurses were great and helped me out with anything that I needed. Without having my family here, the nurses were my inspiration to get through it all.”

Having watched his brother go through the transplant experience, Ben knew what to expect, which relieved some of the stress and anxiety. He was philosophical about his situation, thinking that, “if something happened, it was meant to happen.” He says he felt that there was not much he could do at that point to change anything.

The Results: Running Marathons and Races

Since his transplant, Ben has returned to good health. He has taken up running and has participated in many races, including the Richard S. Caliguiri City of Pittsburgh Great Race and a quarter of the Baltimore Marathon. He says he may not be the fastest runner, but he completes the race.

“I was very happy that I went through the experience,” he says. “I would do it again if it meant saving my life. It’s made me who I am today.”

Ben’s treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.

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