A New Heart for Love and Life 

Brians Sherry's Medical Odyssey



By Vicki Hildner

(May 2015)  Brian Sherry was at home in December 2011 folding laundry when he experienced an unusual electric sensation on the left side of his chest.

He walked upstairs, took a shower, sat down at his computer and searched “heart attack.”

Then he dialed 911, beginning a three-year medical odyssey that led to a new heart and a new wife, who has her own story to tell about heart transplants.

At the hospital, surgeons opened Sherry’s chest and discovered a mysterious bacterial growth had invaded his heart. Confident that he couldn’t be seriously ill, Sherry set out to convince the staff to discharge him.

But he was dissuaded when a cardiologist visiting from the University of Colorado Hospital (UCH) told him, “If you go home, you’re going to die.” So Sherry moved to UCH.

At UCH, Joseph Cleveland, Jr., MD, professor of surgery, explained Sherry’s condition: “He had developed an infection of the aortic valve. The bacteria had grown into a mass of vegetation. Part of the mass had broken off creating an embolism in the left anterior descending coronary artery. I’m really surprised he survived the initial heart attack.”

As UCH doctors set out to unravel the mystery, they tried to repair Sherry’s aortic valve but his heart had been so weakened, it could no longer keep him alive.

Sherry’s only option was a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that would be implanted under his skin to help pump blood from the left ventricle of his heart to the rest of his body. The device connected to an external computerized control unit and battery pack through a port in his skin. At night, he could connect to a wall unit. But during his waking hours, he carried the control and batteries everywhere in a messenger bag strung across his chest.

Within weeks after getting the LVAD in January 2012, Sherry, a longtime elementary school teacher, was back in the classroom at Dalton Elementary in Aurora, Colo. He knew he was living on borrowed time and was being kept alive by two batteries that had to be replaced with fresh ones every day at the end of school.

But his biggest concern–and a sign of his will to live–was how the device would affect his ability to get a date.

“Here I was, this single guy,” he said. “So I’m thinking, ‘How am I ever going to meet a woman hooked up to this weird machine?’”

By spring 2012, Sherry learned that a bacterium, Tropheryma whipplei, had destroyed his heart. Named after George Hoyt Whipple who first described it in 1907 and commonly called Whipple’s disease, it is an extremely rare infection usually found in the small intestine.

In the United States, Whipple’s disease affects only one in a million people each year. Cleveland had never seen a case before Sherry. To have Whipple’s disease attack the heart rather than the gastrointestinal system turned Sherry into a case for the medical journals.

“The doctors say I’m in a special club—just not a club you want to be in,” Sherry says.

His only hope for survival would be a heart transplant, but before he could be placed on the transplant list, his physicians needed to be sure that all the Whipple bacteria in his body had been destroyed. That would take one full year of oral antibiotic treatment.

So Sherry began the waiting game, living with the LVAD, taking his antibiotics and never missing a day of school. That’s when he met Holly, who is mother of one his former students, at a school fundraiser. She had heard about his illness and the LVAD was hard to ignore, so when they bumped into each other, the conversation turned to his precarious medical condition.

“I said, ‘If you need food or company, call me,’” Holly says. “I was just a former parent offering help.”

Sherry asked her to dinner and it was a first date like none other.

“He picked me up and even before we got the restaurant, he did an hour of LVAD training with me,” Holly says. “I learned the back-up batteries were in the trunk, but if his heart stopped I should call 911 before I got the back-ups. Also, no chest compressions to get his heart started. Shock yes, compressions no!”

Ten years before Holly and Brian started dating, Holly had given birth to her second child, a son she named Jonathan. She had a normal pregnancy, but baby turned blue just hours after his birth. Jonathan had multiple heart defects and his only chance for survival would be a heart transplant.

Left, Joseph Cleveland, Jr., MD, professor of surgery, helped solve the mystery of the infection found in Brian Sherry's aortic valve. Photos by James Held courtesy of University Communications.

When he was 12 days old, Jonathan moved to Children’s Hospital Colorado and was placed on the heart transplant list. Holly spent every waking minute in the hospital, watching Jonathan, and waiting for a heart.

“He died waiting for a heart,” she says. “And when the transplant coordinator at Children’s asked us if we wanted to donate his organs, of course we said, ‘Yes.’”

Holly had lived through the loss of a child in need of a heart transplant. Now, she was dating a man who also needed a heart to survive.

“How do you let someone go through that by himself?” Holly says. “Maybe I thought this was my second chance at having things turn out differently, but I just couldn’t walk away. I loved him—that was the bottom line.”

Eighteen months after their first date, Brian and Holly got married on a Friday morning. They bought the ring on Saturday. They told their families on Sunday. They didn’t plan any honeymoon.

“Too many unknowns,” Brian says.

After a year on antibiotics, Sherry underwent 13 biopsies to prove that he had no trace of Whipple’s disease anywhere in his body and he was placed on the transplant list in July 2013.

“With a heart transplant candidate, we want to make sure any type of infection is gone,” Cleveland says. “In this case, we erred on the side of caution because the Whipple was so unusual.”

On April 30, 2014, Sherry was at a school assembly when he was summoned to the hospital. They suspected there was a blood clot in the LVAD—a life-threatening development. Sherry was admitted and never left the hospital. One week later, Cleveland came to him with news of a donated heart.

“He said, ‘This looks like a good one,’” Sherry says. “I looked at him and said, ‘I’m ready.’”

By September 2014, Sherry was back in school in front of his class of fifth-graders. The 12-hour surgery was already receding in his memory as he made plans to play more golf and get into peak physical condition.

Sherry plans to thank his donor by writing a letter to the donor’s family and delivering it to UCH for safekeeping, should the family ever want to contact him.

“I thought it would be nice for them to know where the heart is,” Sherry says. “I want to thank them for such a selfless act.”

“It’s huge what they did,” Holly says. “One person donating organs can save so many lives.”


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