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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

A Thankful Heart

By Jennifer McClure
Nov. 21, 2010

Just six hours after the high school athlete discovered something was wrong with his heart, doctors told Tyler Groom a transplant would ultimately be his only chance of survival. A day earlier, he hadn’t even known he was sick.

His parents, Alan and Tammy Groom, could count on one hand every sickness of Tyler’s nearly 17 years, and now their son faced an illness that might very quickly prove to be his last.

It was June 6, 2008, when Tyler was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a disorder in which the heart is enlarged, weakened, and unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.

Tyler’s 17th birthday was a month away. Football camp and his senior year would begin the month after that. But this night, chest pain and shortness of breath prevented Tyler from going to sleep and prompted his parents to take him to the emergency room.

In the coming months, many people, including their church family at First Assembly of God in Arkansas City, Kan., prayed for Tyler and the Groom family. After less than two months of being in and out of Kansas Medical Center in Andover, Tyler needed to be hospitalized long term. On Aug. 5, Tyler was flown to INTEGRIS Baptist Hospital in Oklahoma City, about 150 miles south of the Grooms’ home in Winfield, Kan.

“My first meeting with Tyler was in the intensive care unit,” says cardiovascular surgeon Dr. James Long, one of a team of doctors at INTEGRIS who treated Tyler. “Here was a 17-year-old man who obviously only a few months before had been at the pinnacle of health. With this cardiomyopathy, he had been robbed of all that allowed him to be a normal youth. Tyler was truly declining, reaching death’s door.”

Long, who is on the executive committee of AGServ! (an AG initiative to encourage lay ministry and service), says Tyler’s condition was most likely caused by a virus that triggered an inflammatory response in the heart.

Two days after his arrival, doctors reaffirmed that a transplant would indeed be Tyler’s only hope.

“This was a very hard day for us,” Tammy recalls. “Things were not going as we had hoped.”

As August progressed, Tyler’s condition rapidly deteriorated. To prolong Tyler’s life and to act as a bridge to a heart transplant, the doctors determined Tyler would need a mechanical heart pump. These pumps, Long says, are a last resort, and their implementation must be timed very carefully.

“If we wait too long, we burn our chances of doing well with the implant,” Long says. “But we never like to use it unless it’s right at that moment of need.”

In Tyler’s case, both sides of his heart were failing, necessitating two pumps. Though many heart pumps can be implanted internally, a dual heart pump, in this case a BiVad, must remain on the outside of the body, resting against the patient’s chest.

“Tyler did not want the surgery to happen; he did not want the device,” Tammy says. “Alan and I told him, ‘You have one other option, and that is death.’ After that, he got really down.”

The surgery was scheduled for Monday, Aug. 18, 2008. The night before, Tammy, Alan, Tyler’s brother, Luke, and his wife, Shanna, as well as extended family, joined hands around Tyler’s hospital bed and prayed. Tammy’s prayer left a lasting impact.

“Tammy prayed, ‘Here he is, God,’” Alan says. “‘You know we can’t fix him. We lay him at Your feet because we know that You can.’”

There was something special about Tammy’s prayer of surrender.

“After my mom spoke her prayer, we just felt the Holy Spirit so strong in the room,” Luke says.

Monday came. Tyler was stable, and the doctors determined they still needed to wait on the procedure if they were to time it correctly. Surgery was rescheduled for Tuesday.

Tammy began to wonder if the doctors had waited too long.

“I spent Monday night with him, then went home and showered,” Tammy says. “When I came back to the room, he wasn’t lifting his head off the pillow. I almost felt like he was giving up; I thought I was losing him. I thought the doctors had made a mistake by waiting until Tuesday.”

Tuesday morning, Aug. 19, all was going according to plan.

“We had committed to this,” Long says. “Tyler was in the operating room. He had been fully prepped for surgery. The drapes were all in place. I asked for the scalpel and was just within a matter of seconds of making the incision when our lead cardiologist, Dr. Doug Horstmanshof, came in and said, ‘Hold up.’”

Family, friends from Winfield High School, as well as Senior Pastor James Newman and Youth Pastor Chad Hopkins of Arkansas City First Assembly — about 20 people — filled the surgery waiting room. When two nurses came in only an hour after Tyler had been taken back for surgery, Tammy and Alan’s hearts sank.

But then Tammy noticed they were smiling.

“I said to the nurses, ‘You have a heart, don’t you?’” Tammy recalls.

“We were crying; we were ecstatic; we were so happy,” Alan says. “Several times throughout the day I had everybody join hands and pray.”

Against incalculable odds, a heart that proved to be an absolute perfect match for Tyler became available literally at the last moment.

“We could not have asked for a better-sized, better-fit, better-aged individual than what we received,” Horstmanshof said in a press conference.

The night before the surgery, Tyler and his brother had some time alone just to watch TV and to talk.

“We were sitting there, and I just said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you go to sleep expecting to get a BiVad but got a new heart instead?’” Luke recalls.

Had the BiVad been implemented on Monday, Tyler would have been removed from the transplant list for two to four weeks while he recovered from the surgery.

“This was a very dramatic experience,” says Long. “I’m absolutely convinced children of a loving Heavenly Father should recognize God’s hand on our lives every day. These gifts from our Father come in many forms, and this package was absolutely spectacular and extraordinary.”

As for Tyler’s earthly father, the last several months had been understandably difficult.

“I own a welding fabricating business,” Alan says. “I’ve always been able to fix things and keep things together, and this was something I couldn’t fix. It was really hard for me to accept it. But after we heard the news, it was almost surreal. I knew it was in God’s hands.”

Tyler woke momentarily after the surgery, and with his family around his bed, Alan and Luke told him the good news. Tyler, still groggy and on a ventilator, responded by scribbling “Thank God” on a piece of paper.

“Everything — all the worries and stress — was flushed out of me,” Tyler says. “It was such a relief that I wouldn’t have to go through any more struggles and that all our praying and faith in God really pulled through.”

The faith of everyone who knew Tyler was impacted, but especially that of his brother.

“Before this situation, my wife had been trying to get me to go to church,” Luke says. “I had been a Christian my whole life but had kind of fallen away. This whole deal really strengthened my relationship with God. I look at life completely different now.”

“We now know what the power of prayer can do,” Tyler says. “Before, we really didn’t know. Now that He did what He did, we believe we should live our lives more for Him.”

Nine days after the transplant, Tyler was sent home. His senior year had started while he was in the hospital. Winfield High School arranged for a teacher to meet with Tyler at home until mid-October when he was able to return to school.

Though he was not able to play football his senior year, the coach let him wear his uniform and join the team on the sidelines during home games. On Oct. 3, before Tyler had returned to school full time, he was crowned homecoming king.

Despite the rough start to the school year, Tyler graduated in May 2009 with a 3.0 GPA. This fall he transferred to the University of Kansas in Lawrence after a year at a local junior college.

In addition to the many ways this experience has changed Tyler’s life, his nurses had a lasting impact on his career choice.

“The nurses who take care of you treat you like you’re the only one they take care of,” says Tyler, who is now planning to become a nurse. “They would come in and stay with me even an extra hour after they got off of work at night. I realize what it feels like to be in the hospital in that position and how it feels to be comforted like that. I want to give back to people what they gave to me.”

Life will never be exactly as it was before — football, the sport he had played since fourth grade, is entirely off limits — but Tyler is active again, playing in a church softball league and wakeboarding on the lake this past summer.

For the rest of his life, Tyler will need to remain on medicines to prevent infection and rejection of his heart. His heart transplant physician, Dr. David Nelson, says Tyler remains free of significant rejection.

“No doubt because of prayer, a supportive family and compliance to medicine, he’s had an outstanding outcome — with the emphasis on prayer,” says Nelson, chief of the Heart Transplant Medicine Division at INTEGRIS.

Nelson, also a born-again Christian, prays with the Grooms at each visit. “Our heart transplant program could not ask for a more perfect heart transplant patient or supportive family.”

And the family couldn’t be more grateful.

“We thank God every day for this miracle,” Tammy says. “We also pray for the family who, in a time of tragedy, chose to give life to our son.”

Tyler and his parents spoke with the donor family, who live in Mexico, via a translator over the phone a year after the surgery. This summer, they had the privilege of meeting them.

“It’s hard to know someone had to give up a life to save a life,” Tyler says. “All my thanks goes to them and to God, that He would give me this extra chance. There’s not enough thank yous that I could give out; it’s just a miracle in and of itself.”

JENNIFER McCLURE is technical editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

View a video by INTEGRIS Baptist Hospital on Tyler's story.

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