It’s 3:30 a.m. June 22.
A small band of Tyler Jaenicke’s family and friends stand inside the pedestrian bridge overlooking Barclay Street, just a few steps outside the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.
They do their best to keep calm as they wait, scanning the street below.
Out of the darkness, two black Escalades round the corner, lights flashing and sirens wailing as they speed in from the airport.
The SUVs carry five members of the Spectrum Health heart transplant team, along with the treasure they watch over—a healthy heart destined for Tyler, the 22-year-old hockey standout who lies in an operating room, prepped for transplant surgery.
As the vehicles pass under the bridge, they honk to salute the group watching and videotaping from above.
Years in the making
“That was a powerful moment there, for us to see that,” said Tyler’s mom, Rhonda Jaenicke of Spring Lake, Michigan. “It’s a way that honors the donor, and it just makes you feel like—it’s special. It’s just amazing.”
That moment was five years in the making. In 2011 Tyler was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a potentially deadly disease of the heart muscle.
The diagnosis shattered his dreams of playing college hockey, yet because his heart responded well to medication, he lived an active life into his college years.
Things changed earlier this year, when the medicine driving Tyler’s heart seemed to stop working.
Dr. Dickinson has treated Tyler since his diagnosis at age 17 and knows the family well. He also cares for Tyler’s grandfather, who had a heart transplant 19 years ago.
A lifesaving LVAD
While snowboarding in Colorado with his dad this March, Tyler began to feel ill and short of breath—signs of deteriorating heart function.
A month later, after a last-ditch trial of an alternate medication, Tyler went into surgery at Meijer Heart Center to have a battery-operated pump attached to his heart. This left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, would keep Tyler alive while he waited for a donor heart.
“The LVAD serves as a bridge to get patients to transplant,” said Becky Shore, RN, Tyler’s pre-transplant coordinator.
With the LVAD in place, Tyler’s athletic lifestyle—playing league hockey three nights a week and coaching youth hockey for the Grand Rapids Blades—had to be put on hold. And because the LVAD is intricate, with components inside and outside the body, Tyler needed a trained caregiver with him 24/7 as he healed.
Waiting and worrying
But for Tyler, the worst part of waiting for a new heart wasn’t the complexity of living with the LVAD. It was the series of resuscitating jolts he began receiving from the defibrillator implanted below his collarbone five years earlier.
The first time his defibrillator fired, Tyler lay in his hospital bed after his LVAD surgery. The shock woke him, screaming, out of a deep sleep.
“I thought Ty was having a bad nightmare,” said his father, Paul Jaenicke. “Then, within seconds, there were nurses running into the room. They knew exactly what was happening.”
More of these painful shocks followed, triggering fears over when the next one might come.
“There was no warning,” Tyler said. “I couldn’t feel when my heart was in a bad rhythm.”
The shocks signaled that his heart function had plummeted. Though the LVAD bought him some time, the clock was running down.
“We could increase his priority on the list because we were nervous (about his right ventricle),” Dr. Dickinson said. “It felt like if we didn’t transplant him, we were going to be in trouble.”
While hanging out at home with his Aunt Lorrie on June 20, Tyler called Shore to touch base, as he often did. She asked him how he felt and encouraged him to keep walking to build his strength.
What she couldn’t tell him was that at that moment the transplant team was evaluating a potential donor heart to see whether it would work for Tyler.
Their call ended—but a few minutes later she called him back.
“I asked him if he was ready—that today was going to be the day that he received his new heart,” Shore recalled. “And I think he said, ‘Heck yes, I’m ready.’”
That evening Tyler checked into Meijer Heart Center. All the next day he and his family waited. Because of the complexities involved in having multiple organs from a single donor donated to various recipients, the heart’s arrival in Grand Rapids was delayed.
When the Spectrum Health team that had traveled to retrieve the heart returned with it in the wee hours the following morning, everyone was more than ready for the surgery.
Tyler’s surgical team successfully removed the LVAD and defibrillator. Then they removed his failing heart and replaced it with a new heart.
Overflow of support
One of the first things Tyler did after waking from his 10-hour transplant surgery was check his phone. Exactly 285 text messages waited for him.
Over at the “Team Ty” Facebook group, more than 750 people followed his progress and cheered him on. Many of his fans held a benefit for him at the ice rink in May.
That outpouring of support says a lot about Tyler and his family, Shore said.
“The amount of support in the community, the outreach that they had … it was incredible,” she said. “He loves coaching little kids, and you can tell that they love him, because all of these people rallied to support him and his family.”
Tyler’s experience shows that end-stage heart disease can happen at any age, and it underscores the importance of organ donation, Dr. Dickinson said.
It also shows that “technology works—both LVAD and transplant,” he said. “It’s standard care and patients return to very good, wonderful quality of life.”
If you met Tyler today, you might not guess he’d had a heart transplant in June. He’s bouncing back quickly and itching to get back on the ice.
This fall he plans to coach again, and next year he wants to return to competitive hockey for a season at Davenport University, where he studies sports management.
Emotions are still raw for Tyler and his family, after all they’ve been through.
“I’m shaking, talking about all of this,” he said.
But he likes telling his story and showing the video of those black SUVs rolling up to the hospital with their priceless cargo.
“It’s quite a gift that he received,” Rhonda said. “We’re just very blessed.”