One morning at 5 a.m., security guard Stanford Ferguson was at work when the excruciating pain hit with a vengeance. He was sure the pain was coming from the area around his stomach. Terrified about what could happen next, he immediately drove himself to the nearest emergency room.
It was 1995, and Ferguson was just short of his 40th birthday. Once he got to the emergency room, he learned that he was having a heart attack. He was taken to the intensive care unit for a cardiac catheterization. The procedure examines how well a heart is working and identifies problems, including blocked arteries.
The physician did not find any blockages, but Ferguson was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). DCM decreases the heart’s ability to pump blood, due to the left ventricle of the heart being enlarged and weak. The cause of his condition remains unknown, but heart failure runs in Ferguson’s family.
DCM is the most common type of non-ischemic cardiomyopathy, occurring mostly in adults 20 to 60 years of age, with one-third of individuals inheriting it from their parents. As DCM worsens, the heart becomes weaker and could lead to heart valve problems, arrhythmias, blood clots, and even heart failure. A transplant is one option that was placed on the table.
“I considered a transplant, but thought I was too young and I felt it wasn’t for me,” Ferguson recalls. “I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. I would jog five to six miles a day, and now my future seemed uncertain about doing the things I’d always enjoyed doing.”
Ferguson was put on medications and closely monitored by his primary care physician and cardiologist. Unfortunately, he was not able to celebrate his birthday like he had planned.
“I had big plans for my 40th birthday and it all changed in an instant,” he said. “I was devastated, especially that growing up I was always very energetic and rarely got sick.”
For a time, he experienced a sense of normalcy in his life with a strict diet and exercise. In 2006, a pacemaker was implanted to resynchronize the action of his heart and improve its function. However, Ferguson’s heart kept getting weaker, and he received a new pacemaker and defibrillator in 2011. The defibrillator worked in tandem with the pacemaker to shock the heart in the event of potential fatal arrhythmias.
“The rest of my body had compensated for my health, but eventually my heart exhausted itself and something had to be done,” Ferguson said. “I had shortness of breath even walking to the restroom.”
By the end of 2016, the West Miami Shores resident was admitted to Jackson North Medical Center. Jackson doctors determined he had congestive heart failure, a life-threatening condition that affects the pumping power of the heart muscles, causing fluid retention around the heart.
In the spring of 2017, Ferguson arrived at Miami Transplant Institute (MTI), a unique affiliation between Jackson Health System and UHealth – University of Miami Health System.
A member of his church who had a successful heart transplant at MTI had relayed his story. This influenced Ferguson’s decision to make an appointment, which led him to meet UHealth cardiologist Sandra Chaparro, MD.
“Dr. Chaparro talked to me about my options to tackle my disease,” he said. “But I prayed for a heart transplant so that I wouldn’t go on dialysis.”
MTI is the largest heart transplant program in the South Florida region and has one of the best outcomes in the nation for heart transplants, with almost 700 performed since 1986.
Ferguson, who weighed 304 pounds, was able to lose 96 pounds by dieting and exercising as he prepared for a potential transplant. The call that a heart was available came shortly before Thanksgiving Day, six months after he was placed on the national transplant list.
“When I got the call, I was nervous and had mixed emotions,” Ferguson said. “My wife just screamed, thanking God that our prayers had been answered.”
The successful surgery took place at Jackson Memorial Hospital on November 14, 2017, and was led by UHealth transplant surgeon Matthias Loebe, MD, PhD, FCCP, FACC, and a multidisciplinary team.
“It was truly a divine Thanksgiving, “Ferguson said. “It could never be more meaningful than to receive a new lease on life.”
Ferguson and his wife have now become advocates for transplantation, encouraging others to be donors.
“They are a lovely couple and they are grateful to have another opportunity to have a healthy life together,” Dr. Chaparro said. “She was always at his side and with a positive attitude, her love for him was evident and it was important to see her support during his process.”
Ferguson, now 62, has since been recovering at home. He has been able to go swimming and ride his bicycle, and is thankful to the MTI team, his transplant coordinators, Christina Wicks and Gleidys Krebs, RN, and his donor family.
“Eventually I’d like to thank the donor family in person and tell them how sorry I am for their loss, but how deeply grateful I am,” he said. “I will cherish this gift forever and take excellent care of it.”
For now, Ferguson plans on spending more time at the gym and wants to spend more time with his family.
“I’m looking at a new beginning and I plan to write a book about my heart transplantation journey,” he said. “I can’t stop smiling.”