Heart transplants unite long-lost brothers

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Aaron Arnold lay in a hospital bed, tethered to machines and gripped by fear, waiting for a new heart.

Heart Transplant Coordinator Donna Dennis hoped to allay his concerns by having a former patient talk to him, and heart recipient Kenneth Arnold Catlett was happy to oblige.

But as soon as Catlett opened the door, the recognition on Arnold's face was immediate, and everyone realized this was no ordinary meeting between patients.

"Hey, I know this guy," Arnold exclaimed. "It's my brother!"

The two men hadn't seen each other in about 20 years, having grown up apart, met as young adults and lost touch.

But they soon learned that they not only shared a father but also the same medical condition — heart failure caused by dilated cardiomyopathy, which affects the lower and upper chambers of the heart and is more likely to strike men than women.

And that chance meeting at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital — where both got new hearts a year apart — led to a renewed bond, a deeper spirituality for both of them and a bigger sense of family.

"Not only did we give them new hearts," Dennis said. "We gave them each other."

"It was destiny, as they say in the movies," added Catlett.

Both men grew up in Lexington, sons of different mothers.

Neither of their moms was married to their father, although Catlett said his mother came close. Family members said their dad is now in his 80s, and they don't have current contact information for him.

Neither brother knew of the other while growing up. Arnold, 56, grew up with two siblings but never spent time with his father as a child. Catlett, 55, also grew up with two siblings but saw his father occasionally when his mom brought him to a local pool hall for visits.

Over time, each brother said they saw subtle clues of each other's existence. Arnold's grandmother on his father's side hinted to him that her son may have had other children. And acquaintances sometimes asked Catlett if he was related to members of the Arnold family because they looked similar, and because Catlett's middle name is Arnold.

Catlett put it all together after meeting Arnold's sister at a Christmas parade around the mid-1990s. When he told her his dad's name, he said, "She had this recognition on her face."

The brothers met just after that and kept in touch until life pulled them in different directions.

Catlett, who was in the Army, moved around a lot, and at one point settled in Alabama to be with his only son, whose mother he separated from, before eventually coming back to Lexington and working various jobs in hotels. Arnold, a former factory worker, said he never married or had children but stayed in Lexington and kept to himself most of the time.

So when Catlett became the first of the brothers to get sick, Arnold never knew.

At first, Catlett's only symptom was occasional leg swelling, along with the feeling that each leg weighed about 80 pounds.

UK cardiologist Dr. Navin Rajagopalan first began caring for Catlett after shortness of breath brought him to another hospital's ER, and a chest X-ray showed his heart was enlarged. Rajagopalan said he did pretty well for a few years, but eventually came to UK in shock and needed ventricular assist devices for both his left and right ventricles - and a long hospitalization.

When Rajagopalan told him he needed a heart transplant, he said Catlett was resistant at first.

"That was a world shaker," Catlett said. "I'd never had major surgery... It was a devastating blow, mentally as well as physically. It was just a mind-blowing experience to know your life hangs in the balance."

But he came through the eight-plus-hour operation in September 2014, and recovered well, experiencing no problems with the anti-rejection drugs he must now take for the rest of his life. In fact, he felt so good — and thankful to his doctors and nurses — that he began making regular trips to the hospital as a "patient ambassador." He visits with other patients whenever he stops to pick up his medicines or see his doctors and nurses. He wears a mask around crowds to keep from catching a virus, but otherwise has returned to normal activities, even renovating a family home.

"He had the desire to be better," said Dennis, a registered nurse. "That's half the battle: The desire to want to be better."

Arnold came to Rajagopalan through his nurse practitioner. He'd been diagnosed with heart failure years earlier and began slowly getting worse in December 2014, requiring an intravenous medicine that he was able to take at home through a port in his body, and eventually needing an LVAD. Like Catlett, he was reluctant about the idea of a new heart, but eventually came around and went on the transplant list in late winter.

His condition worsened this summer, landing him in the hospital in August.

Eventually, Dennis told him a heart had become available - leading to the hospital room meeting with his half-brother.

"We try to prepare them. But there's nothing to prepare you for when the heart becomes available," Dennis said. "The best way to prepare them is to have them meet another patient."

But the first heart didn't work out for Arnold.

When the doctors saw the organ, Rajagopalan said it didn't look right, so they rejected it. But they accepted the next match that became available, and Arnold received his new heart on Sept. 12, becoming one of 49 adults who had heart transplants this year in Kentucky. Forty-two of them were done at UK, a record number for one Kentucky hospital.

Rajagopalan now suspects the brothers' condition is likely genetic. Rodney Arnold, a brother with whom Arnold grew up who used to take their father to doctor's appointments, said their dad doesn't have the same condition but does have a pacemaker.

Catlett visited Arnold throughout his recovery, which Dennis said helped immensely, since "the only thing that can help you through (this) is a strong support system."

"You couldn't have anyone better than your own brother," Arnold said, adding that he only wishes he could have been there to help Catlett through his recovery.

During this holiday season, both brothers, who are Christians, say their new hearts and new bond aren't their only gifts.

Going through this ordeal with the help of his brother has made Arnold less reclusive; after this, he said, "I felt more obliged to be around people." Catlett even hopes to convince his brother to join him as a patient ambassador.

Both he and Catlett have gained new appreciation for little things, like the warmth of the sun on their skin — and a renewed sense of God's presence in the world.

"A higher power intervened," Catlett said. "A higher power has a purpose, and he is not finished with us."


Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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