Meet James Wiley, heart transplant recipient

James Wiley and his girlfriend Beth Powell.James Wiley, 30, of Tunnelton, West Virginia, was in fifth grade when he started to feel unwell. He had tachycardia, a fast heart rate, and atrial fibrillation, irregular heartbeat. James lost his father to cardiomyopathy, a disease that makes it difficult for the heart to beat, when he was eight years old and his older sister also had a history of heart disease, so his doctors knew this could be an early sign of something much more serious.

He received an internal cardiac defibrillator and was placed on medications to control his arrhythmia and blood pressure, which helped him live a normal life until 2013, when he started having difficulty with a high heart rate. When his doctors performed a cardiac catheterization to diagnose the cause, James went into cardiac arrest three times. His doctors brought him back, but he was on life support for a week.

His doctors implanted a pacemaker, which helped control his heart rate until 2021, when he started having difficulty breathing and increased arrhythmias.

“I had moved to Morgantown to attend West Virginia University, so it just made sense to transfer over to WVU Medicine and start seeing a cardiologist closer to me,” James said.

On July 15, 2021, James went into cardiogenic shock, a life-threatening emergency that happens when the heart can’t pump enough blood and oxygen to the brain and organs. He was admitted to the ICU at WVU Medicine J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital.

His doctors tried to intervene using a balloon pump and other procedures, but James needed a new heart.

“I saw what my sister went through with her transplant 13 years ago, so I knew it was a rough surgery. She had to have an LVAD while she waited for her heart, but I wasn’t a candidate for that because my heart was too damaged. The doctors said it would only put me in worse health,” James said. “A heart transplant is an extreme option, but it was the only one I had.”

James stayed in the ICU, waiting for a new heart, until he received a call on Aug. 22 saying they had found one.

“It was seven in the evening when they told me, and I just broke down. I started crying a little bit because I was so happy. I was also in shock because I knew that I had to go through that big surgery. I was like, here it comes,” James said.

“That night, I didn’t sleep a wink. I was supposed to receive my transplant the next morning, but it was moved to the evening, so I spent that day with my mom and my girlfriend just sitting around and talking. I didn’t feel many nerves, but I was anxious to get it going.”

James recognizes how rare it is to find a donor as quickly as he did, knowing that others spend much longer in the hospital before they are able to receive a transplant.

“I had been there for two months, which isn’t a very long time for a heart transplant,” he said. “I was fortunate to get it that quick. I was ready to just tackle it and get it done.”

The transplant went well and, after a second surgery to stop an internal bleed, James was on the road to recovery. A transplant, particularly a heart transplant, is one of the most difficult surgeries to recover from because the body has to adjust not only to the trauma from the surgery, but the new organ’s function.

Because of this, transplant patients need to be monitored in the ICU for several days to make sure they are recovering well. James’ kidney function decreased, requiring that he be placed on dialysis during days two and three of his recovery.

“Once I was off dialysis on day four, I was really motivated to start walking. I had been through life support and other surgeries, so I knew I needed to get up and start moving. The nurses and physical therapist were great, cheering me on as I got my first few steps in. From there, I was motivated to get going, and I started to feel a lot better with my new heart,” James said. “Once I got moving, every step just made me so happy. I remember each little step.”

When James was able to walk the whole ICU floor, the drains that had been placed during his surgery were removed, and he was transferred to the Step-Down ICU.

“I was so happy to move to the new floor and have a little more freedom to move around,” he said. “Each little step after surgery just makes your motivation go up. I was ready to get to go home because I had been in the hospital for two-and-a-half months at that point.”

On Sept. 2, James was released from the hospital to home, where he began to adjust to life post-transplant.
“I was used to the regimen of taking medications twice a day, but my anti-rejection medications were a lot more than I was used to. I had to get one of those pill organizers because I have so many, but you adjust to it because they’re so important and I can’t miss a dose,” he said.

“It’s honestly made me more organized in my life because I know how important these medications are. I have reminders on my phone several times a day, and I go to the pharmacy a week in advance to make sure I have everything set up for refills, so I don’t run out.”

James said he has struggled with his weight because of the steroid he has to take, but he has worked with his transplant coordinator and team to help him figure out his diet and how to stay at a healthy weight.
“Honestly, if you just work with your coordinator and your team, they can help you make adjustments, and it’s fairly simple if you stay on top of it,” he said.

Now, James looks forward to finding a new job in social work after his previous workplace closed due to COVID-19 shortly before he became sick in 2021.

“My dream job was always to work as a pediatric social worker because I grew up in hospital systems, seeing how it affected my mom being the support system for a kid who is sick,” James said.

He looks forward to getting back to horseback riding with his girlfriend and taking his dogs for walks.

“I’m kind of a homebody,” James said. “I’ll sit down and watch a whole Netflix series in one day if you let me, and I’ve started reading more since my surgery. You have to adjust your hobbies after a transplant because you can’t just go full bore back into the things you did before.”

James says his heart transplant not only saved his life but gave him a new outlook as well.

“Before the 2013 event, when I went on life support and got a pacemaker, I was just wide open. I didn’t really care about or understand my heart stuff at all. I was just being a normal kid, and when I got sick in 2013, it was like a shock to the system. It made me realize that I have some pretty serious health issues,” James said.

“When I got better, I started living my normal life, but with more of an understanding of what was going on. After my transplant, my priorities changed. I better understand what’s important, and it’s made me mature a lot quicker. It makes you see what’s important, and, honestly, it’s made me have way more patience with people.”