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Gainesville man adjusts to life after organ transplant

Shaw Carter, 21, received a new heart on New Year's Eve

POSTED: January 19, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Shaw Carter never knew the person who gave him his heart, and it’s likely he will never even learn his name. But without his newly donated heart, Shaw Carter would continue to struggle with a host of alarming symptoms that could lead to his death.

And thanks to the anonymous donor, Shaw Carter received a new heart on Dec. 31, one day before his 21st birthday. In fact, he became the 21st person to undergo heart transplant surgery at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in 2013. The procedure took 12 hours followed by 12 days of hospitalization.

The Gainesville native is grateful for his “gift.”

“It’s kind of like the ultimate sacrifice, but a lot of good comes from it,” he said.

Shaw Carter’s journey to receiving a new heart, however, started 21 years ago when he was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The rare heart defect causes one of the three chambers of the heart to work improperly. Without intervention, the disease is fatal.

Carter underwent three open-heart surgeries by the time he was 2« years old.

“As parents we had two choices: we could have immediately gone to transplant or we could have done the surgery,” Shaw’s father Doug Carter said. “The transplant was much riskier, and they told us that he would probably still need a transplant in the future, but then we would have the advantage of all of the years of advancement in technology and medicine.”

The early surgeries reconstructed Shaw’s heart to work with his two healthy chambers and sustained him through his teenage years. However, his condition slowly deteriorated. His body no longer absorbed proteins correctly, which led to a buildup of fluids in his abdomen and eventually impacted his heart function.

During the past year, Shaw’s condition worsened to the point a heart transplant became necessary. And six months ago, Shaw was put on the heart transplant list. Finally, on Dec. 30, the family received the call about a heart becoming available.

“Since July, we have been waiting for this moment,” Doug Carter posted on his Facebook account. “(Shaw’s) spirits were high in hopes that this will be a new start for him in regards to his health. The next several days will be critical as the ‘new’ heart gets started and the balancing act on the rejection medicines begins.”

Critical was an understatement for the family. The second day after surgery, Shaw went into cardiac arrest before being revived with chest compressions.

But just 12 days after surgery, Shaw was released and has been spending time at home in Gainesville. He said he is thankful for his transplant and believes strongly in the importance of donorship.

“The ultimate life-saving occurs with the gift of someone who had something unfortunate happen to them and they died,” Shaw said. “They end up helping so many people.”

Shaw is a registered organ donor, too.

“Even though I can’t donate my heart, I could donate my kidneys or my lungs if something happened to me,” he said.

His father agrees.

“If you are not an organ donor, I encourage you to sign up in 2014,” Doug Carter posted on his Facebook page. “We are learning firsthand about the unselfish gift of life.”

Since the surgery, Shaw has shown no signs of organ rejection.

The 21-year-old also has lost 35 pounds in water weight as his body began flushing out the fluids that collected in his abdomen. Though he will have to take immunosuppressants for the rest of his life, his doctors hope he can take fewer medications in the future than he before surgery.

Shaw isn’t alone. On average, 79 people receive donated organs every day and 18 people die while waiting for one, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In fact, Shaw isn’t even the only person in his high school’s graduating class to receive a heart transplant.

LeeAnn Noble moved to Gainesville when she was 10 and joined Shaw’s sixth-grade class. The two later became friends.

By all accounts, Noble was a healthy and active teenager, but she began having trouble breathing while on a family trip in upstate New York.

“I felt really out of shape, which was weird because I was a cross-country and track runner,” she said. “Then I started getting sick all the time and couldn’t breath very well.”

After several trips, doctors determined Noble had pneumonia and ordered a chest X-ray, which showed her heart was about four times larger than normal.

“(The doctor) called us and said ‘You need to go to (a) cardiologist tomorrow. I already have an appointment for you. It’s kind of an emergency,’” Noble said. “The cardiologist did a bunch of tests and realized my heart was functioning at 20 percent of what it should be.”

Noble was diagnosed with ideopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease causing the heart to become weakened and enlarged, which prevents it from pumping blood properly. She spent a month in Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta before the doctors told her that she needed a new heart.

She was put on the donor list Feb. 9, 2006. Four hours later, she received a call that a heart had become available. While she was prepping for surgery, Shaw was three doors down being treated for his heart problems.

“He said ‘Goodbye and good luck’ before I went in for surgery,” she said. “We were friends all through high school, and once he found out he needed a transplant, he got back in contact with me to ask questions about it.”

Now Noble is studying nursing at the University of North Georgia and hopes to help children who undergo illnesses like she did.

“It’s hard being a transplant recipient, because you don’t want to be defined by that. You don’t want people to know,” she said. “But you would be surprised by how many people there are walking around who have had transplants.

Just between January and October of last year, organ donors made 24,000 transplants possible, but currently 120,000 people are waiting for organs, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. A single donor can save as many as eight lives.

Registering to become an organ donor is as simple as signing up on Georgia’s state registry, at www.donatelifegeorgia.org, or designating your decision on your driver’s license when you get it renewed. You can also inform family and friends or declare it in a will.

“People are just not aware of how good being an organ donor is and the positives it brings.”


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