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The heart to live on
Walter Dullemond’s ordeal began with a nagging cough, a tickle in his throat that refused to subside.
Not one to complain, the father of two chose to ignore it.
Soon he had a fever and symptoms that felt like flu. He was coughing so hard he broke a rib.
“He’s just the kind of guy who didn’t want to go to a doctor,” says Walter’s wife Mehrnaz, especially for something as silly as the flu.
By the time Walter finally saw a doctor, he was immediately dispatched to the emergency room at Royal Columbia Hospital.
Mehrnaz remembers the exact date that her family’s life turned upside down, setting off two years that have tried and tested their love.
“March 21, 2011,” says Mehrnaz.
Walter, healthy and 47, was struck down by a sudden illness, one that the doctors had no explanation for. All they could tell the family was that his heart was no longer functioning, its muscle slowly deteriorating, unable to pump blood or maintain a normal rhythm.
Walter was transferred to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, where doctors installed a left ventricular assist device to help pump his heart.
“There’s always a twist,” says Mehrnaz, explaining how at every turn during Walter’s illness they’ve encountered road blocks. She’s grown tired of hearing that Walter’s symptoms and reactions are “rare.”
Six months after the assist device was installed, things started to go downhill again.
“The machine was working OK, but something was still attacking my heart,” says Walter.
By the time he was rushed to St. Paul’s Hospital on March 28, 2012, he was pronounced dead, but then revived and put on life support.
Doctors told Mehrnaz if Walter had arrived a half hour later, he wouldn’t have lived.
That day, Mehrnaz took a deep breath. The doctors told her to begin planning Walter’s funeral.
“I had to call his family. That was hard.”
As days went by, Walter miraculously survived. He was put on a transplant list and spent the better part of 2012 clutching a pager.
If Walter didn’t have a heart by March 2013, he would be too sick for a transplant.
“There was no hope and they would not give him a heart because his body would not survive the operation,” says Mehrnaz.
A week before Christmas, Walter couldn’t even walk anymore. As the date loomed, all the family could do was pray.
On Feb. 6, the family got the phone call. Walter was rushed to St. Paul’s, where he got a new heart.
It was initially a little too big to fit into his chest. And while in hospital, he had an allergic reaction to an anti-clotting drug. “See,” says Mehrnaz. “More twists. We are strong, but God tests you.”
Walter returned to their home in Pitt Meadows on March 20.
Barely home, Walter started getting headaches and began throwing up.
He initially thought he was reacting to medication, but when the symptoms persisted for three weeks, he went back to St. Paul’s.
He had meningitis and would remain in hospital till mid-September.
Mehrnaz drove there every day.
The car broke down, the roof leaked, the fridge broke down. She got a bylaw ticket from the city because the grass was overgrown.
Still, Walter and Mehrnaz are thankful.
Though the family is faced with selling their house and struggling to stay afloat while chipping away at a line of credit, there isn’t anything they can’t overcome now.
“Life has been challenging, but we are still grateful,” says Walter, who worked as a consultant for the food industry before falling ill.
Friends and family have flooded them with support and even held a fundraiser last year for them, much to Walter’s chagrin.
“I don’t like being the centre of attention,” he says.
Doctors still haven’t determined what caused Walter’s heart to fail. It could have been viral, or auto-immune.
To the Dullemonds, the mystery doesn’t matter. All that does is that Walter survived.
He is slowly getting better. His heart is still pumping.
“You have to focus on the positive side. Things can always be worse,” says Walter.
• Friends have set up a trust account to help the Dullemond family at TD Canada Trust. Account number 0234-6513695. Donations can be made to any TD branch.