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A new heart, a new life

OLDSMAR — It was 7:30 p.m. on May 3, when a nurse at All Children's Hospital came out of surgery and updated Michael Quinn's parents.

"We have removed his heart," she had said. "His new heart will here at 9 p.m."

Michael's mother, Silvia Quinn, and Chuck Degrenia, her longtime partner and the father figure in Michael's life, were petrified.

Michael, the 16-year-old center of their universe, was lying on an operating table with a hole in his chest. A heart lung machine was now pumping blood through his body.

A replacement organ was on its way, tucked inside an ice-filled blue cooler, the kind you pack with cola and beer.

At 9:03 p.m., the glass doors of the hospital parted and a healthy pink heart was rushed into the surgical suite.

"I said, 'God bless this heart,' " said Quinn, a 36-year-old cardiovascular invasive specialist with Morton Plant Mease. She also said a prayer for the big-hearted donor family.

Six months ago, her son was pale, tired and living in reverse isolation in the cardiovascular intensive care unit at All Children's Hospital. His heart was failing and his only option was a heart transplant.

His parents began renovating their home to reduce infection risk in hopeful anticipation of his return, not knowing when — or if — he'd get a heart.

Now, six weeks after receiving the new thumper, Michael is making a stunning recovery and looking forward to the rest of his life.

The family is all smiles now, but the heart transplant surgery — the granddaddy of them all — was pretty darn scary at the time, they said.

They remember tiptoeing into Michael's room and seeing him for the first time after surgery, lying there in a tangle of wires, tubes and beeping machines.

"He had two poles full of IV pumps, a breathing tube, two lines coming out his neck, two arterial lines coming out of his arms, three venous lines, a picc line, Foley, two chest tubes and pacemaking wires," Quinn said.

He couldn't speak or open his eyes; he could only wiggle his toes.

Her saucer-like brown eyes welled up as she put her arm around her only child.

"It's bittersweet that Michael has been given life, but at the same time another family is suffering," she said. "Although we'll never meet them, we'll always have a spiritual bond."

• • •

Michael was 10 when he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart walls are thick, diminishing the heart's pumping ability.

In January, after climbing the steps at Clearwater Central Catholic High School, he started to sweat and feel faint.

He was taken to All Children's where he remained for nearly four months with a failing heart and uncertain future.

Since the surgery though, things have been going swimmingly.

Normally heart transplant patients are in the hospital for a month or more and then transferred to the Ronald McDonald House for a week or so, his mother said.

But just two weeks after his surgery, the nurses baked him a cake, gave him a party crown and sent him on his way.

"He was the first patient that went straight home post transplant without going to the Ronald McDonald House," Quinn said. "He was doing everything right, and following doctor's orders to a T."

His early discharge caught everyone off guard, including Degrenia, 39, a remodeling contractor who had been working around the clock to renovate the home and make it dust- and mold-free.

The next thing he knew, he was waiting for six hours in a pharmacy until all the dozens of new prescriptions were filled.

"I didn't mind," he said. "Michael wanted to come home. And we wanted him home."

• • •

All the walls and woodwork in the Quinn home have a fresh coat of paint. The carpets have been replaced with tile. The dusty popcorn ceilings and moldy doors are gone, thanks to help from individuals and businesses like the Home Depot, which donated $7,000 for the renovation.

An air conditioning company, Air Rescue, cleaned the ducts and donated an air sanitation system.

Visitors may enter only after donning face masks and washing their hands.

Because of the immunosuppressive drugs Michael takes to ensure his body doesn't reject the heart, he is susceptible to bacteria, viruses and infections.

The common cold could kill him.

His hands quiver from the antirejection medicine; the prednisone gives him a rash.

He sports a 12-inch red scar on his chest where the skin has been glued back together.

Small inconveniences for the gift of life.

"I felt dead before, and now I feel alive," he said.

He stays inside mostly and walks laps around the house — sometimes for two hours at a time.

He is learning to cook, making egg drop soup and mango pudding, preparing for the day he will leave for college.

"It's better than eating Ramen noodles," he says. "Besides, I have a lot of free time."

On Fridays, his 16-year-old friend, Victoria Kelly, comes to see him. On this day, they baked banana nut bread.

"We play video games, talk, watch movies, whatever," she said. "We text a lot.

"He's really smart and really funny."

The medical bills are stacking up and will continue to do so. The family has nearly reached their limit on their private insurance and Medicaid is supposed to help, but they aren't sure to what extent yet.

It will be several months, probably around Thanksgiving, before Michael can return to school to see his friends and face those steps again.

In the meantime, he plans to get a learner's permit and drive around, visiting places only from the seat of his car until he passes his six-month milestone and can go out in public again.

He has only one request.

"When kids get their licenses, could you ask them to check themselves off as donors?" he asked.

Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at

Want to help?

A bank account to benefit Michael Quinn is set up at Wachovia banks, account No. 3000025117687. Or visit

Want to help?

A bank account to benefit Michael Quinn is set up at Wachovia banks. Or visit

A new heart, a new life 07/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 2:26pm]
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