True Blue

Transplant Patient Finds Loyal Teammates Along Recovery Road

by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday.

Editor’s Note: We are sad to report that John Greenwood died March 16, 2016, at University of Pennsylvania Hospital. He was 30 years old. According to his obituary, the 2010 heart-transplant recipient “battled cancer with single-minded determination.” It goes on to say: “He was strong and determined when he accepted a challenge. He encouraged many people to surmount their disabilities by using humor, cajoling and real support.”

The image of the solitary athlete is an enduring one: the long hours of individual effort prefacing those comparably few minutes of competition, the pre-dawn ritual of anonymous sacrifice, the neon-colored beads of sweat in an energy-drink commercial.

John R. Greenwood works out on a treadmill in the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Wellness Program facility at Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.

John R. Greenwood’s experience is anything but the fictional “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” however. Throughout the greatest race of his life – a relative sprint between his initial symptoms and his record-setting recovery from a Fourth of July heart transplant – the Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate has been blanketed in a support system that rivals any championship team anywhere in the annals of sport.

There’s his transplant team at Hahnemann University Hospital (Drs. Howard Eisen, Percy Boateng and John Entwistle, as well as Barb Carrow, Carolyn Cassano and Teresa Rowe on the nursing staff); his former teammates on the cross-country team; his contingent of registered nurses and exercise physiologists at the the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Wellness Program facility at the Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute; the T-shirt-wearing “Blue Crew” back on campus; and, of course, parents Robert and Barbara.

Before the victory lap could be run, though – 14 months before – the picture was far from a celebratory one for the award-winning alumnus. A member and captain of coach Mike Paulhamus’ Wildcat cross-country squad, a certifiable picture of health and fitness, Greenwood showed his first troubling signs of physical ailment on May 29, 2009.

“I’d go up a flight of stairs, breathing a little heavier than normal,” he recalls. “I couldn’t sleep; it felt like there was fluid in my lungs.” He saw his local physician the following day, was told it could be the flu or bronchitis, was administered a few antibiotics and was sent home to get better.

But “better” turned to worse: Fatigue and a racing heart prompted a chest X-ray and other tests that indicated his resting pulse rate was 120 – double what it should be. He consulted his cousin, Dr. Michael Bosak, a Harrisburg cardiologist, who discovered through ultrasound testing that the left side of Greenwood’s heart was ejecting only 5 percent of the blood per beat (55 to 60 percent is normal, he said).

“It was pretty bad,” said Greenwood, who traveled to Hahnemann’s heart-failure clinic in Philadelphia for a June 4 visit that turned into in a six-week stay. On June 24, he received an L-VAD: a battery-operated left ventricular assist device that was implanted in his chest to artificially supplement the pumping of his ailing heart.

“My team really helped me a lot. I lived off campus, and they made sure I got to and from school every day.”

That accommodation allowed his return to college, although it was not without inconvenience. The batteries needed to be carried in a harness, adding more than a few pounds to Greenwood’s lithe runner’s frame. Even when newer models were introduced, the limited power supply required him to tote spare batteries and an extra control unit. He also had to regularly change the sterile dressing around the entry site of the pump and, while unable to shower, had to waterproof the bandages just to give himself a sponge bath.

Throughout the continuation of his senior year, Greenwood remained on a transplant list, accruing seniority but opting not to accept any offers until after his graduation. While travel was compromised, he was able to complete an internship and his senior project, building the pieces he needed within the college’s School of Industrial and Engineering Technologies.

He graduated May 15 with a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing engineering technology and associate degrees in automated manufacturing technology and toolmaking technology; he received the Board of Director’s Award for “achievement under exceptional circumstances” and the Alfred L. Hauser Sr. Memorial Award for a manufacturing major who exemplifies the college’s philosophy of excellence. (He also minored in mathematics.)

Following commencement, Greenwood returned to the “accepting list,” staying within two hours of Philadelphia and curtailing activity to minimize the risk of infection should a donor heart be available. At 2 a.m. July 4, the call came; by 5 a.m., he and his parents were at Hahnemann. After a seeming eternity of blood work and other compatibility tests, he was in surgery from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

“I had some problems during the surgery, some complications before the new heart was in,” Greenwood said, explaining that his heart went into fibrillation and doctors had to perform an emergency bypass procedure to stabilize him and continue the transplant without further event.

Greenwood receives his diploma and congratulations from Penn College President Davie Jane Gilmour at May 2010 commencement ceremonies. Photo by Joseph S. Yoder.

“I was up walking two days later and was discharged July 12 after only being in the hospital for eight days,” he said. “That is the shortest recovery at that hospital by two days.” Since then, his progress has been steady: frequent blood tests and biopsies have shown his body’s acceptance of the new organ, resulting in the lowering of his medication levels, and his exercise regimen at Hershey has shown improvement by the week.

His recovery, obviously, has much to do with youth and his athleticism.

“I don’t have any circulatory system problems otherwise, I’m not overweight, not diabetic, not 50 or 60 years old,” said Greenwood, who turned 25 in August. The benefit of his cross-country experience wasn’t limited to the physical; his sporting life provided some all-important moral support, as well.

“My team really helped me a lot,” he said of those preoperative days. “I lived off campus, and they made sure I got to and from school every day; if I needed to get to the mall, they got me around.” He’s particularly grateful for his roommates – Travis M. Cain, Jeffrey J. Faherty and Mark B. Cordeiro (Class of 2009) – as well as Bradley T. Robinson (’10), who, as president of the Student Athletic Advisory Council, organized the sale of “Blue Crew” T-shirts that filled the Bardo Gymnasium in solidarity with Greenwood and his parents.

As of this article’s writing, Greenwood is focusing on his thrice-weekly regimen of rehab. Employment befitting his academic credentials remains an objective, but, he concedes, “Trying to find a decent job is pretty near impossible” given his rehabilitation schedule. His success is considerable; in the first three months after the operation, he had worked his way up to 15 minutes jogging and walking on a treadmill, 15 minutes on the elliptical, 15 minutes on the seated bike.

He downplays the extraordinary nature of his recovery, the personal tenacity that makes him a winner. He and his family know that, in life and in sports, collaboration makes the difference.

“From the bottom of our hearts, we appreciate the all-important role that the college, John’s department and the cross-country team played in his health over the past year,” his parents said. “If John didn’t have the purpose, the discipline and the fun of these three elements, he would have stayed home with his L-VAD and become a very depressed heart patient.

“First came the assurance of excellent stand-by health care at the campus clinic, then came the assurance of shop safety for John, then came coach Paulhamus’ creative ideas for including John in cross-country training and meets,” they continued. “Some of this response stems from professionalism, but mostly from the good hearts of the good people at Penn College.” ■