SOUTH BEND -- Candy Meredith still remembers the exact minute when her husband, Steven, had his first heart attack.
It was July 14, 2012, and he was working in the yard when, at 12:13 p.m., he realized that he couldn't breathe.
Steven Meredith Sr., 47, was rushed to Memorial Hospital, where he suffered another heart attack half an hour later.
"I was in congestive heart failure," Meredith said. "Three main arteries were clogged, big time."
Despite the stents placed in arteries around his heart, the organ was so badly damaged that the left side of the heart no longer pumped on its own. Frankly, he needed a new one.
Meredith, of South Bend, was put on the heart transplant wait list last October, but there aren't enough organ donors to ensure that each of the about 3,500 United States patients waiting for a heart can get one quickly. Right now, Meredith is being kept alive by a ventricular assist device, which forces blood to move through the heart.
"That is called a 'bridge' to a transplant," Dr. Mark Jones, a transplant cardiologist at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne, explained. "We're just bridging a person to support them so their other organs don't fail while they're trying to get a heart."
The VAD was implanted at Lutheran Hospital, where Meredith was transferred when his condition worsened. Lutheran is the only hospital with a heart transplant program in northern Indiana, and that is where Meredith will get a new heart when one becomes available.
That's a day the Meredith family is looking forward to. While the VAD can keep him alive indefinitely, there are also limitations to living with it. The device implanted in his chest is connected to a battery pack outside the body by a driveline. Before Meredith was released from the hospital, his wife and youngest son, Steven Jr., 22, had to take a course to learn how to keep the wires clean and replace the batteries that power the VAD.
"It's very important to keep the driveline clean, and (Meredith) does a really good job," Jones said. "If they get infected, then it'll take a lot of trouble and time trying to get it cured."
Unlike a human heart, the VAD can only pump at a constant rate. That means Meredith finds it difficult to do any chores or activities that require an elevated heart rate.
"Before this happened I worked two jobs. I was constantly tinkering with cars and out in the yard, and I can't do any of that anymore," Meredith said.
Although Meredith still works at Atwood Mobile Products, he had to give up a part time job at Meijer because he could no longer walk all over the store.
The loss of income hit the Merediths just as huge medical bills began rolling in, not all of which are covered by insurance.
It's not hard to understand why heart transplants cost so much. Transplant centers rely on a network of organ procurement organizations to match organ donors with recipients of similar sizes, ages, and blood types. Oftentimes, a donor who matches the profile of the recipient will be at a hospital hundreds of miles away, so the surgeons sent to inspect and harvest the heart will fly in a chartered jet, the only way to get an organ to the transplant patient before it is irreparably damaged.
According to Dr. Jones, the surgeons have just four hours between removing the heart from the donor and restarting it once it has been implanted in the recipient.
Add those costs to the salaries of a team of surgeons, plus extended hospital stays, dozens of checkups before and after the surgery and a lifetime of specialized medications, and the procedure becomes extremely expensive very quickly.
The family budget isn't the only thing that's changed since Meredith was first hospitalized. His older son, Matthew, 27, said that it was hard to watch his father deal with the limitations of his condition now that he could no longer work in the house and the yard. Meredith is currently taking nine different medications on a strict schedule. His diet is completely revamped, and he quit smoking.
"I've given up Mountain Dew," Meredith said. "That was harder than quitting smoking."
And there's also the waiting. The Merediths know that a heart could become available at any time, and when they get the phone call notifying them of a potential donor they have four hours to make the trek to Fort Wayne.
While Meredith knows that his health will improve with a transplant -- he will be able to play with his grandchildren, Steven Lee, 1, and Anastasia, 2, -- any excitement is tempered by the risks of such a major surgery and the knowledge that someone has to pass away before his heart can be donated to Meredith.
"This whole process is scary. I know it would be better for me to have (a transplant), because then I could do a lot more, but there's a lot going into it," Meredith said. "I'll have to be on immunosuppressants for the rest of my life. Somebody with a cold can put me in the hospital for a month. So yes, it's scary, but in the long run I think it will be better."
According to Jones, transplant patients tend to have better results the earlier they get a replacement organ. But with Steven Jr.'s wedding scheduled for Saturday, the family has mixed feelings about a potential call this week.
"We want the call, but we're hoping at least we're there for the wedding," Candy Meredith explained. "It'd be hard to miss (the wedding), but we'd go."