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Columbus man focuses on bright side of life while waiting for heart transplant

By Micah Walker, Columbus Dispatch

Cooking is a form of art for Jermayne Harris.

The 28-year-old got to practice his craft in front of 12th-graders recently during a cooking demonstration in Jayme Schumacher’s culinary arts class at his alma mater, Columbus Downtown High School.

Wearing a red and white shirt with the word, “Chef Mayne” in the upper righthand corner, Harris cut up pieces of sausage and bacon for corn chowder.

A cook and entrepreneur, Harris opened a food truck and mobile catering business, Mayne Course, with his father in 2020. Cooking has been one of the few constants in the Southwest Side resident’s life since being diagnosed with congestive heart failure five years ago.

While Harris has a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), a mechanical pump, implanted in his chest, his heart is still only pumping around 15% when it should be between 50% and 60%, he said. A normal left ventricular ejection fraction ranges from 55% to 70%, where a percentage of the total amount of blood in the left ventricle is pumped out with each heartbeat, according to Cleveland Clinic.

Harris hopes to eventually receive a heart transplant but has been on the waiting list for two years and he could be waiting for a while.

Organ transplant statistics especially grim for Black patients

The number of organ transplants performed on Black patients in 2020 was 27.7% of the number of Black patients currently waiting for a transplant. By comparison, the number of transplants performed on whites was 47.6 % of the number currently waiting, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. It’s an issue the federal government has been trying to improve by reforms targeted at the government contractors that run the organ donation system.

Emotional rollercoaster

Harris was diagnosed with heart failure at the age of 23 in May 2017. He had been feeling sick for months, but thought it was just a cold. He said he felt congested all the time and had difficulty breathing. Then one day, his legs and feet started to swell.

“I told my mom, ‘Something’s wrong, this swelling is crazy,'” Harris said. “It got to the point where I couldn’t even put my shoes on anymore, so I drove myself to the hospital.”

Thomas Archer, a cardiologist at Mount Carmel St. Ann’s, believes that Harris caught an unidentified virus that attacked his body, causing his heart to weaken and fluid to build up in his lungs.

He soon began cardiac rehabilitation with Mount Carmel and wore a wearable defibrillator for three months. When that wasn’t improving his heart, Harris had a heart defibrillator implanted in his chest.

The device improved Harris’ heart greatly, at least temporarily. He said his heart was pumping at 40% and for a year, he had no problems. But on Jan. 1, 2019, Harris had a panic attack while on the job as an assistant manager at the Bob Evans in Pickerington. He said between the New Year’s Day rush of customers and being short-staffed, the day became stressful for him.

Having a LVAD has put a pause on some of the things Harris used to enjoy doing, like playing contact sports and swimming. Even everyday tasks such as showering and sleeping are difficult, as he does not want to damage the device by getting it wet.

“Sleeping is definitely different,” he said. “I can’t sleep on my left side, which I used to love, so I had to get used to sleeping on my right side or on my back because the pump is on this (left) side and it pokes my ribs.”

When the pandemic hit, things became even more limited for Harris, as people with heart failure and other heart conditions are more likely to get sick from COVID-19. He said he often went on walks with his mother, cooked and “got really good” at the video game Call of Duty.

“During the pandemic, nobody was really going anywhere, but I really couldn’t go anywhere,” Harris said. “I felt like the bubble boy, the kid in the screen door waving at everybody because I couldn’t go outside.”

However, now that he is fully vaccinated and has received a booster shot, Harris feels more comfortable going to places again, such as the theater to see the new Batman movie.

Archer said Harris’ condition has improved since getting the LVAD, but having a transplant would bring his heart levels to where they should be.

“He’s a super person, very positive family, just a great young man. We’re proud of him,” he said. “We’re cheering for him for that things continue to go well and he gets the transplant soon.

“It’s always a difficult situation with these patients. You’re thrilled that they feel so much better, but he’s done so well with the pump, that it’s put him down on the transplant list.”

Organ transplant waiting game

According to organ procurement nonprofit Lifeline of Ohio, more than 105,000 Americans are currently waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant, including 3,100 people in Ohio and 700 in Greater Columbus.

About 3,500 people nationally are waiting for a heart, and many will wait more than six months, according Yale Medicine, the clinical practice for the Yale School of Medicine.

However, last year the U.S. saw a record-breaking number of organ transplants performed. In 2021, 41,354 transplants nationwide were performed, according to preliminary data from United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the first time the country has exceeded 40,000 transplants.

That’s because the donor needs to meet certain guidelines to become a match for the recipient, said Bryan Whitson, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. Those guidelines include blood type compatibility, finding a heart that is appropriately sized for the patient and finding a donor that has exact or similar features, such as gender, height and weight.

“Then we start thinking about the age of the donor recipient, where are they geographically located,” Whitson said. “Is it five miles from the donor to the recipient, or is it 500? Some of those things can impact the decision-making process about whether it would be an overall success.”

Another factor is where the recipient is placed on the national waiting list. Maintained by UNOS, recipients are categorized into statuses 1-7, with status 1 consisting of someone who is hospitalized, most often in the ICU, and needs urgent care.

Harris said he’s a status 4 because the LVAD device continues to keep his heart functioning, which places him in the middle of the list.

A heart transplant can take between four and eight hours, said Brooks Edwards, a cardiologist and former director of cardiac transplant at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. After the surgery, patients usually stay at the hospital for two weeks, then go into substantial outpatient care, he said.

“The frequency of follow-up is several times a week typically in the first couple of months and then it gets to be less intense as they get further out,” Edwards said. “But even patients who are many years out, typically we get blood work on them four times a year and see them at least once a year.”

As an ambassador for Lifeline of Ohio, Harris encourages people to become an organ donor.

While 28.5% of the total candidates waiting for transplants in 2020 were Blacks, they comprised 13% of organ donors, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department of Minority Health.

“I would say to think about the lives that you can impact once you’re gone,” he said. “Especially in the Black community, we don’t like hospitals or really any institutions, but it’s something I would like for people to take a good look at.”

Two hearts

Even while going through his heart challenges Harris tries to keep his life as normal as possible – including in finding love.

Harris and his wife, Keima, had a small ceremony with family last month at the International Christian Center in Northland. However, the two plan to hold a larger wedding next year.

The two attended the now-closed Monroe Middle School in the Mount Vernon neighborhood when they were kids and reconnected more than a year ago over social media.

“I have a protectiveness over Jermayne, both because of his heart with the device, but also his emotional heart,” she said. “But I think it’s a blessing to have support and someone to lean on, so that’s what I try to be for him.”


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