Heart transplant survivor Todd Cunningham

As Todd Cunningham approached his 52nd birthday, he began to notice some troubling changes.

The brisk 3- to 4-mile walk he’d regularly do around a nearby park was getting harder. He just didn’t seem to have as much stamina, and would get short of breath.

“I figured I was just getting old,” he said.

But the shortness of breath would occur even when he wasn’t being active. It was so bad when he would lie down, that he’d have to sit back up to catch his breath.

The Dallas man went to see his doctor, who, after reviewing the results from a chest X-ray and electrocardiogram told him to go straight to the emergency room. “He took out his mobile phone to call the hospital,” Cunningham recalled.

Cunningham was diagnosed with advanced heart failure. His heart wasn’t able to keep up with the body’s demands for oxygen-rich blood.

“My doctor said it was like a train wreck in slow motion,” said Cunningham, who received an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, to prevent cardiac arrest. “It was a combination of factors that had just been getting progressively worse.”

Cunningham had been diagnosed with high blood pressure in his mid-30s and took medication. He didn’t think much of it, recalling that his father also had it. More recently, he’d been told he had high cholesterol, something else he had in common with his father.

Describing himself as a “naturally skinny person,” Cunningham gained 50 pounds following a divorce in 2000. But he lost the weight a few years later through diet and exercise and had maintained a healthy weight ever since.

After getting the ICD and medications to manage his shortness of breath and heart rhythm, Cunningham felt better for several months.

But in May 2013, his ICD began to go off. He got two shocks at home, plus another three while in the ambulance.

Cunningham, now 54, doesn’t remember much about that day, but learned later that his ICD went off another 25 times at the local hospital as they tried to get him stabilized. He was transferred to the cardiac center at UT-Southwestern Medical Center for specialized care.

“I was hanging on by a thread when I got there,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham was put into a medicated coma to allow his body to rest for a few days before getting a left ventricle assist device. The LVAD would act as a mechanical heart, helping his heart pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body.

Cunningham woke up 10 days later and spent another five weeks in the hospital to heal and undergo rehabilitation, followed by a month of in-home care.

He was also added to the national heart transplant list.

As he waited for a new heart, he tried to navigate questions and sometimes painful stories from well-meaning friends.

“At one point, I wore a sign at a party that said, ‘No, I don’t know what number I am on the waiting list, it doesn’t work that way, and please don’t tell me about your father’s heart attack,’ ” he recalled.

On Feb. 2, doctors successfully transplanted a donor heart, and today, Cunningham continues to be surprised by how good he feels.

“At first, they had to keep reminding me that I don’t have heart failure anymore,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham recently finished cardiac rehabilitation to rebuild stamina and strength, and these days he keeps busy managing dozens of daily medications and working out with a personal trainer. He continues to watch his diet, focusing on heart-healthy foods and limiting his sodium intake.

While he still has a long way to go to fully recovery, Cunningham has begun volunteering for the American Heart Association at community events.

“I want to pay it forward,” he said. “I owe something to the donor’s family and I don’t want to waste this opportunity.”

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Photos courtesy of Todd Cunningham