A New Heart At Last For Patient Who Blogged About The Wait

The family of Jesus Vega, left, who died Monday of injuries sustained on a Bristol basketball court last week, says they believe his donated heart went to Colby Salerno, right.

Colby Salerno, who has been blogging from Hartford Hospital about his need for a new heart, received one Tuesday.

Salerno, 24, from Cheshire, has been blogging for more than five months from the 10th floor of Hartford Hospital about his need for a heart transplant. That moment came Tuesday, his 166th day in the hospital, when one of his nurses told Salerno that they had found a "perfect heart" for him.

"Next came the waterfall that overcame my bottom eyelids and just let loose," Salerno wrote on his blog. "So long have I waited to hear those words."

As of late Tuesday, Kelly Salerno said she didn't know the identity of the donor of her son's new heart, but expressed her gratitude.

"I want to say thank you to whoever gave us this heart," Kelly Salerno said. "They lost someone they love dearly, and he will make them proud."

The hospital's policy doesn't allow officials to release the name of the donor without the family's permission.

However, Brittany Vega of Bristol said Tuesday that, based on general information she was given by medical personnel about the recipient, she believes her brother's heart went to Salerno.

Jesus Vega, 18, also of Bristol, died Monday atSt. Francis Hospital and Medical Centerof injuries sustained last week during a basketball game.

Brittany Vega said she was not given the name of the transplant recipient, but she said she took comfort knowing that some good came of her brother's death. She said her family specifically requested that her brother's organs be used for younger patients. His organs went to five other people, she said, including patients who needed lungs, kidneys and a liver. Tearing up, Vega said that Salerno's receiving her brother's heart is "a wonderful story."

"He's young, he deserves his life, too," she said of Salerno. "My brother, he can't be here, but that boy will live through my brother."

Brittany Vega said her brother died of injuries after he was beaten up at a basketball court. Police have not confirmed that and said they were investigating.

Colby Salerno was diagnosed 12 years ago with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that is usually detected during the teenage years. It is a congenital defect in which heart muscle thickens in the heart's left ventricle, which interferes with blood flow. That forces the heart to work harder to pump blood, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. A transplant was deemed the best option for Salerno.

The condition occurs in 1 of every 500 people and, according to the American Heart Association, is the most common inherited cardiac disease. It's a difficult condition to detect because the symptoms are often mild, or there are no symptoms at all.

Salerno has been in the hospital's cardiac intensive care unit since the operation, where doctors will make sure that he is stable and there aren't any problems with bleeding, according to hospital spokeswoman Rebecca Stewart.

Kelly Salerno said doctors hoped that he would become stable late Tuesday or sometime Wednesday, and then they would allow him to awaken and breathe on his own. If all goes well, Salerno should be out of the ICU by the end of the week.

After that, Salerno will take anti-rejection drugs to help his body accept the new heart. Those drugs are usually part of a lifelong regimen. At first, he will take 32 types of medication, his mother said, which will gradually decrease. The patient and doctors must keep the dosage at exact levels, because taking too much of the drugs can severely compromise the immune system.

Kelly Salerno said they learned of Salerno's condition — originally diagnosed as exercise-induced asthma — when he was 12 during a routine physical. The physician didn't like the sound of his heart beat and had a cardiologist take a closer look. Salerno was told that he couldn't play any sports — a tough thing to hear for a kid who was on three soccer teams at the same time.

His condition worsened during college.

"We realized that if he ate a big meal, he couldn't breathe," his mother said. "His heart needed more energy just to digest the food."

They hoped that he would be eligible for an operation in which part of the heart's muscle is cut to improve blood flow. But his doctors eventually decided that only a heart transplant would work. For his 166 days in the hospital, he wasn't allowed to leave because he needed to be monitored 24 hours a day.

"We knew they could keep him going on those drugs, but we didn't know how long we could wait emotionally, knowing that he was stuck in this one room," Kelly Salerno said.

She said doctors didn't offer an estimate of how long he could live without a transplant, but made it clear that he was going to need one soon.

Salerno began his blog, "Tales from the 10th Floor," shortly after arriving at the hospital in December. The blog — which often mixed humor into his stories of living at the hospital — gained an avid following and was voted the area's best health blog. Often it was about the day-to-day happenings of living in a hospital, from his lack of enthusiasm for the hospital food to how much he liked his team of nurses. Salerno wrote often about his hope to become a cardiologist. Other entries grappled directly with his condition.

In one post, written in April, he addressed an open letter to "John Doe" — his future heart donor.

"I really hope you will have the ability to stare down from some sort of heaven and see what good you have done and those you have saved by being an organ donor," he wrote. "So although you will never read this (unless by some crazy coincidence you're a fan of "Tales from the 10th Floor"), I hope somewhere in your subconscious you feel and hear the thanks being sent from me to you."

Kelly Salerno said he has the same upbeat tone in life.

"He's made so many friends, lifelong friends on the 10th floor," she said. "They were all crying today."

Exhausted, Salerno said she didn't plan on going home for a while.

"When I see his eyes open, I'll get some sleep," she said.

About 6,000 people die of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, HCM, each year. According to the American Heart Association, though, many people with HCM can live to normal longevity. People with HCM should not take part in intense physical sports; about a third of young athletes who die suddenly are suspected of having HCM. Several professional athletes, including Reggie Lewis and Jason Collier of the NBA and Thomas Herrion and Mitch Frerotte of the NFL have died of HCM.