After nearly 10 years of battling heart failure, William Sayles sees the coronavirus pandemic as just one more thing he needs to get through.
Sayles, 50, of Dublin, suffered a heart attack in April 2010 while playing softball with friends at the Columbus Park of Roses. He woke up from a coma nearly a month later.
While he was relieved to be alive, he had no idea it was just the beginning of a decade-long battle to lose weight and qualify for a heart transplant. Today, Sayles faces yet another threat as transplant recipients are considered more at risk for developing severe complications from COVID-19.
“I’m just thankful to still be here,” Sayles said. “We just have to do what we can to stay as safe as possible and eventually, when this is over, we can get back to some sort of normalcy.”
After Sayles woke up from his coma, doctors told him he’d likely need a new heart in the near future. At any time, an estimated 3,100 Ohioans are awaiting an organ donation, including 700 in central Ohio, according to Lifeline of Ohio, a Columbus-based nonprofit group that coordinates the donation of human organs and tissue.
Five years later, Sayles was placed on something called a Left Ventricular Assist Device, LVAD for short. The electric device helps the heart pump blood throughout the body when it no longer can do so on its own.
It made life difficult for Sayles. He had to carry around a battery to power it and had to plug it in every night to recharge.
“Once you get used to it, you know, it’s there to keep you going so you have to treat it like it’s very, very important,” Sayles said.
Besides the LVAD, there was another complication for Sayles. He needed to lose weight, fast.
Sayles weighed more than 300 pounds and his body mass index was so high that he wasn’t even permitted to put his name on the transplant wait list.
To shed the weight, in 2016 Sayles turned to a method often seen as a last resort— bariatric surgery.
Although weight loss surgery has become more common, it’s rare among people on an LVAD and potentially risky, said Dr. Thomas Sonnanstine, a bariatric surgeon for OhioHealth. Sayles’ operation in 2016 was the first one Sonnanstine performed on someone with an LVAD and he’s only conducted one more since then.
The surgery removed about 80% of the volume of Sayles’ stomach, Sonnanstine said.
“Like any surgery, there’s a risk,” Sonnanstine said. “You take that several iterations further when you’ve got someone who’s already in heart failure and you’ve got a device that’s already pumping their heart for them. That kind of surgery can be tenuous. You don’t have a lot of room for something to go wrong.”
Ultimately, the surgery was a success. Sayles lost more than 100 pounds and later that year he got on the heart transplant list, he said.
Then, one day while Sayles was at work, the call came. Only, he wasn’t around to answer it.
Sayles, a manager at a Motel 6 at the time, left his cellphone at his desk on June 28, 2018 when he missed a call from the Cleveland Clinic about a heart that had become available. Eventually, Sayles said his daughter reached him, and by that afternoon they were on their way to Cleveland.
By the next morning, Sayles had a new heart. But, even after the transplant, Sayles said he faced a lengthy road to recovery filled with doctors’ visits, tests and anti-rejection medications.
Months later, in late 2019, Sayles said he finally felt like he was in the clear. Then, the coronavirus hit in mid-March 2020.
Sayles began taking precautions, such as wearing a mask and keeping his distance. Despite his efforts though, he tested positive for the virus twice in August.
While the diagnosis scared Sayles at first, he turned out to be one of the lucky ones as he never developed a single symptom.
Sayles doesn’t know whether he just received two false positive COVID-19 tests or if he just happened to be asymptomatic. But, he’s not leaving things to chance and is still being careful.
He’s looking forward to taking full advantage of his heart when the pandemic ends, which he hopes is sooner rather than later.
“COVID is just another thing I have to go through in my life,” Sayles said. “The transplant and the LVAD were definitely a test of my strength and character so this is just one more test.”