For Pinellas man, overcoming health challenges all part of the plan

John-Charles Stiffler and his fiancee, Marisol, live near the beach. At 41, he is awaiting heart and kidney transplants.
John-Charles Stiffler and his fiancee, Marisol, live near the beach. At 41, he is awaiting heart and kidney transplants.
Published July 25, 2013

Most people who know my story feel sorry for me.

I don't.

I live 100 yards from the beach with a woman I love who loves me back.

I do have some unusual challenges. I'm 41. I have a very sick heart. When my mother was pregnant with me she took a drug called tetracycline. The drug caused birth defects that have affected me my entire life.

I was born with an enlarged heart, one kidney and ugly teeth. Except for my teeth, I thought, growing up, that I was like every other kid in Columbus, Ohio.

I played lots of sports and excelled at them. But vigorous exercise caused me painful breathlessness.

As time went by, my enlarged heart triggered more problems. I lacked the concentration and energy it took to complete college. So I dropped out. It became harder for me to do mundane tasks.

Medical tests revealed that I had been having a series of "rolling heart attacks" my entire life. Ten years ago I had a major attack. Since then I have had one additional major attack, four minor attacks, seven v-fibs (short for ventricular fibrillation, when muscles in the heart contract wildly) and one flatline, for a total of 14 recorded heart attacks. For the last eight attacks, my pacemaker-deliberator device shocked me back to life.

I was lucky during the first three of those eight, because the shocks caused me to pass out. For the last five, I was wide awake due to the heart pump implanted in my chest, which will not allow me to pass out. The pain was excruciating.

Two Christmases ago my stomach was perforated with an ulcer. The bleeding came very close to killing me. I was then put on an intravenous pump to administer medicines to keep me alive.

When my health further declined, I had open-heart surgery to have a device inserted to keep my heart beating. Now doctors say I need both a heart and kidney transplant.

Last year, I thought I was getting that new heart. I was rushed to Tampa General and urgently prepped for surgery. As I was waiting to be wheeled into the operating room, the doctors told me the new heart was flawed and the transplant was off.

Keeping a positive outlook has been an even bigger challenge than the medical issues. But while I can't control what my body does, I can and I will control my attitude.

Instead of drawing disability payments, I work 40 hours a week at a job I can do from home. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to take care of myself and give back something for the gift of being alive.

Between science and God, I believe my destiny is set. I don't share my story to complain, because I truly believe God has bigger plans for me. And if somebody reading this feels inspired to sign up as an organ donor, so much the better.

If I am lucky enough to receive a new heart and kidney, it will be my responsibility to honor the donors by making a positive difference in the world. To that end, I spend my spare time working on a safety invention I believe could save lives.

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Pessimists, it is said, are those who see a glass as half empty. My glass is half full. I live at the beach with the love of my life. I have a good job and the unconditional support of family and friends.

Come to think of it, my glass overflows with blessings.

John-Charles Stiffler can be reached at His Pass-a-Grille neighbor, journalist Chris Core, assisted in writing this article.