Heart disease was the furthest thing from Dr. Charles Shelton's mind as his shortness of breath forced him to stop swimming and take up walking as a form of exercise.
Last year, as spring turned to summer, his symptoms grew more serious, and the Lexington psychiatrist grew weaker.
Although he was only 49 and otherwise healthy, Shelton was diagnosed with cardiac sarcoidosis, a inflammatory disease that causes the formation of granular clumps of cells similar to scar tissue. After months of worry, uncertainty and 48 days in the hospital, Shelton received a new heart on Dec. 26.
Dr. Charles Hoopes, director of the University of Kentucky Heart and Lung Transplant Program, said Shelton's case spotlights two key but little known points about heart transplant.
First, only about 20 percent of transplant patients have "acquired diseases," meaning behavior such as smoking contributed to their heart failure, he said.
Like Shelton, "the majority have diseases that are not a consequence of their behavior," Hoopes said.
Second, there is a significant need for hearts for transplant in Kentucky, he said. Unfortunately, Hoopes said, only the often tragic end of another life offers hope for transplant patients.
Including Shelton's, there were 12 heart transplant operations last year at UK Chandler Hospital, which has performed heart transplants since 1991. Jewish Hospital in Louisville is the only other heart transplant center in Kentucky; it transplanted 10 hearts in 2011.
But there are far more patients in need, Hoopes said, citing the long waiting list in Kentucky on which patients might stay for as long as two years. The average wait nationwide is generally three to four months, Hoopes said. Currently, the ability to do the surgery is limited only by the number of hearts available for transplant.
Shelton knows he's a lucky man. This week, looking fit and healthy and more like a member of the transplant team than a patient, Shelton said he wanted to use his second chance at life to support and encourage other heart patients and to advocate organ donation, especially during February as the American Heart Association marks American Heart Month.
"I want to use my experience to help others," he said.
Shelton had been healthy his whole life, said Dr. Navin Rajagopalan, his cardiologist and medical director of cardiac transplantation. Shelton had taken good care of himself and his health and would seem an unlikely candidate for a heart transplant.
The shortness of breath he experienced can be a symptom of many types of heart disease, but even as a person with medical training, Shelton wasn't overly concerned at first. Ultimately he became so ill he had to close his psychiatric practice.
Amy Shelton, a retired nurse, said her husband's illness progressed over several months but it almost felt as if overnight her family's life was turned upside down.
The shortness of breath started in the spring and by Thanksgiving her husband of 20 years was confined to a hospital room and had been placed on a transplant list. She struggled to maintain a normal schedule — as least as normal as possible — for their sons, Chaz, 18, and Bryce, 14.
Charles Shelton wasn't keen on a transplant at first.
"For the first couple of weeks I just said, 'I am not going to do a transplant, there are too many complications,'" he said. But "I got sicker and sicker and I realized that is the only option that I have that's going to save my life."
While he was in the hospital awaiting a heart, Shelton attended a support group for other transplant patients and patients who use ventricular assist devices, implanted pumps that help the left ventricle pumping blood efficiently to the aorta.
Shelton tried to stay positive throughout his illness, using tools he had honed as a medical professional. But, he said, he found the greatest solace in the simple words of a fellow transplant patient. "The heart will come."
On Dec. 26, Shelton learned that a heart had become available. Amy Shelton tried not to get too excited. There had been close calls before, but the hearts were deemed unsuitable or went to another patient. The couple, members of Lexington's Southland Christian Church, prayed together before the operation as they had many times.
"Our faith really pulled us through," Amy Shelton said.
The Sheltons have high praise for the UK hospital staff and want to offer their story as hope for others. Hoopes said Charles Shelton's prognosis is good.
"When the operation is a success, a doctor can expect the heart to serve the patient well for the next 10 to 15 years," Hoopes said.
Rajagopalan said he hopes Shelton's story can inspire others to pay attention to their health and seek a doctor's advice when suffering from symptoms of heart disease. They shouldn't be afraid to seek treatment
"Our goal is to get people to feeling healthier and improve their quality of life," he said.
Reach Mary Meehan at (859) 231-3261 or 1-800-350-5697, Ext. 3261.