The Gift of Life
By Sonia Duggan
In the game of life some win and some lose, but Gynovel Henry didn’t think he’d win by the time Fall 2017 arrived. It had been a tough year and the former teacher/coach was running out of options. He didn’t think he’d live long enough to make it to Thanksgiving, much less Christmas.
He had been in and out of the hospital for months, and over the years he had endured life-saving surgeries and biopsies. As a patient suffering from atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure, medications and an artificial heart pump were the only thing keeping him alive.
The desire to fight was starting to leave him and a heart transplant was his last chance.
Gynovel’s 34-year journey to that point is one of survival, strength and heartbreak. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the love of sports and strict discipline by his full-time pastor father helped him survive. Basketball was a universal sport for inner-city kids and Gynovel played daily until Streptococcal pneumonia sidelined him. It took months to get his diagnosis and a course of medicine to get him back on track.
“I was in the hospital two months before the doctor found out I had aortic heart valve scarring,” he said. He was ordered to restrict his activity after his bout in hospital but found ways around it. “I played a whole lot of sandlot when mom wasn’t looking,” he said.
Despite feeling a bit slower after his illness, he eventually resumed playing sports. At 6’3,”Gynovel’s basketball career continued through high school and into college. “In 1994 I was playing in a basketball tournament and felt really tired,” he said. The doctors revealed his heart was enlarged and his aortic valve was damaged, a common side effect from complications of an infection. His cardiologist’s recommendation was heart valve heart replacement surgery. In 1995 he got a titanium valve replacement, known as “the clicker,” at St. Jude in Chicago.
After multiple interruptions in his college journey, Gynovel graduated in 1998 with a degree in Biology from a college in Mississippi. He moved to Denver at the request of future bride, Camille, and began a teaching career while she finished her education. In 2000 the couple married and welcomed their firstborn son Zuri. That same year they moved to Arizona for her first job as a pharmacist.
Gynovel taught school for a year until his dad died of a sudden heart attack. He went back to Chicago to care for his mom, and when he returned, he made a career change to law enforcement. It was a job he loved but it was not good for their family. After his son Azizi was born in 2002, he switched careers again.
Two years later Gynovel’s heart health started to decline. “One day I became unbearably overheated and felt awful,” he said. “I could hear the rhythm from my valve was totally off. I went to see my cardiologist and was told I was going into heart failure. I cried 15 seconds then asked, ‘What should I do’?”
The only option was an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). The ICD is a pager-sized device that is implanted in a patient’s chest to reduce their risk of dying if they go into cardiac arrest.
In 2005 Henry had the surgery to get the implant. “I never had it shock me in the beginning,” he said. Despite the new hardware in his chest he couldn’t work anymore, and he could barely walk and breathe. “Then a friend mentioned UT Southwestern,” he said.
UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Heart Transplant Program is considered one of the nation’s top programs of its kind. Gynovel went to Texas to see Dr. Clyde Yancy and Dr. Mark Drazner, the top two doctors for the program. He was put on a new drug called Isosorbide, or ISO, that would help his veins and heart rhythm and returned to life in Arizona.
In 2006 the Henry family moved again, but this time it was for Gynovel. The couple built a home in St. Paul so he could be part of the program at UT Southwestern. Before they had even moved in, Gynovel stood up and passed out in a bookstore one day. “I could hear this buzzing. It felt like I was on fire,” he said. He had gone into atrial fibrillation and his device jump-started his heart. “It was the best investment I ever bought,” he commented.
As a Heart Failure Team patient, a team of specialists work together to provide ongoing medical management and facilitate the process for patients and families every step of the way. “The nurses and doctors become like my family,” he said. Brenda, a nurse practitioner, was most often Gynovel’s point of contact. “She’s like my mom,” he said. “She’s going to give it to me straight.”
Gynovel also forged relationships in the Wylie community, mostly over football and kids. He was a substitute teacher at Wylie High for a year before he underwent mitral valve reconstruction in 2008. Dr. Drazner, Clinical Chief of Cardiology, and his team started talking about ablation, a nonsurgical way to treat heart irregular heartbeats, or the possibility of a heart transplant.
Coaching for the Wylie Football League with his good friend Cedric Gooch helped Gynovel focus. Some days he’d leave the hospital, go coach, then go back to the hospital. His son Zuri knew about his heart condition but Gynovel never told the other kids about it. “I was already in a weakened state, I did not want to seem weaker.”
At home Gynovel was the caregiver of the kids and the house, but his illnesses took a toll on his marriage. “It’s hard when you’re sick – having a spouse and kids,” he said. “My relationship faltered. We just grew apart.”
Being on disability was also hard for him because he wanted to go back to work. “It wasn’t who I am,” he said. “Family is more important than money and everything.”
He forged ahead with life until July 2, 2014. His failing marriage and health took a turn for the worse. He could barely walk, and when he got to the hospital the doctor told him his heart and kidneys were failing. “Later that night my body shook it off and kept moving,” he said. He was officially put on the transplant list as a 1B status; 1A is reserved for hospitalized heart patients.
Gynovel managed his condition and coaching until he blacked out in his car one day in 2016. Once again, he woke up to the machine in his chest buzzing, a sign that it had saved his life.
“Dealing with mortality – it’s a mental wear,” he said. “Physical – we can handle more. For me, I didn’t know how to choose me. It was a struggle – my life was scheduling my life around the kids and football.”
In October 2017 he went in for a scheduled biopsy and learned his ejection fraction was down to 15 percent. (EF) refers to how well your left ventricle (or right ventricle) pumps blood with each heartbeat. “Normal” is 50-70 percent. He told his doctor he was ready (for a transplant). The doctor agreed saying, “You’ve been doing this for 30-plus years.” He went home with a port and a pack that administered medication 24/7.
Now living alone in an apartment in Wylie, Gynovel no longer had health insurance. Instead of being bitter, Gynovel says going on public assistance helped save his life. “It was humiliating but it helped,” he said. Unfortunately, there was a gap in coverage while waiting for approval and he couldn’t afford his medications. The community stepped up and the Wylie Way became reality for Gynovel. WISD, Wylie Pirate Athletic Booster Club, and former WFL friends stepped in to raise money through a GoFundMe account started by Kelly Abdellatif. Over $8,300 was raised by 104 people, a true testament to the lives he had touched.
Meanwhile Gynovel’s health game was changing quickly. He went home for a few weeks and when he went to sleep Oct. 27, he went into severe AFib. He went back to the hospital and ICU until Dec. 10 when they released him for Christmas. It would be his last Christmas, and birthday, with his old heart. “I went into heart shock sleep January 27, 2018,” he said. “I woke up on the floor of my apartment.” All alone with his chest buzzing, he called his friend Jeffrey Redmond to pick him up and take him back to UT Southwestern – his home away from home for the next five months.
“When I finally went in, I was ready,” he said. The team of doctors and nurses at the hospital said he needed to get his things in order. “Writing my will hardest thing I did,” he said.
Over 200,000 people die every year waiting for the perfect organ match. “Holding on is the hardest part,” he said. “Mom is the mentally strongest person I know. All I could think of was her – mom, Camille, kids. The body was giving up. The mind was holding on to things. I never asked why. I got to a point where I made peace with it.”
Daily visits from friends and family made the time pass and kept his focus off his situation. One of Zuri’s teammates, Parker Cusey, suffered a stroke that fall while playing football. Andrea Cusey would bring her son to visit when Parker returned to the hospital for checkups. They would walk the hospital floor together giving each other encouragement.
Gynovel’s first transplant attempt came three months into his hospital stay. He spent six hours in surgery to find out the heart was no good. He was getting weaker every day. He stopped watching TV and sat in a dark room growing more and more depressed. “All my desires started fading away,” he said. “Every time the doctors walked in they had a different look on their face. I wouldn’t even look in the mirror.” He went from 240-160 pounds. “Death seemed warm and inviting – like somebody saying, ‘come go with me.’ I cried about my kids – it was my son’s senior year.”
Gynovel never got the chance to take himself out of the game. At 11:30 p.m. one night the doctor told him he had a heart for him. It all happened so fast Gynovel couldn’t talk to anyone. He had surgery March 26 and it lasted through the 27th. He didn’t wake up for four days. During that time Gynovel remembers talking to his deceased brother who was saying ‘Come go with me’ and his mom screaming to ‘wake up.’
He remembers waking up to music that Friday unaware of how much time had passed.
“At first it didn’t go well because I’m tall,” he said. The heart doesn’t have to be the exact size but the heart should meet the parameters. The right side of his heart which goes to the lower extremities was having problems. The process of syncing cells together was painful. “You have to coax them,’ he said. He went through a dehydration procedure to to sync his body. “The first cup of water you drink. I forgot what it tastes like,” he said.
Gynovel put in the work so he could go home. “I wanted to get out of there. I didn’t really want help. I just wanted to feel better,” he said. They wouldn’t release him from the hospital until he had someone to care for him. His sister Keysha quit her job in Chicago to care for him.
He was released May 1 with blood clots and pain along with a wound vacuum. “For me to get out of there with just a clot in the leg was a blessing,” he said.
Once a patient is home, the work continues. Hospital trips four times per week for doctor’s appointments for the first three months. After two months of being out of hospital Gynovel had to pass a series of tests to see if he could be on his own.
There are several survival benchmarks for transplant patients; the first month, six months, first year. The survival rate for the first year is around 87 percent. “It’s an emotional and physical journey,” he said. “If we don’t take our meds our heart can reject it.”
The risk of infection is very real. Recipients have to wear a mask and gloves and wear sunscreen at all times due to the medication that affects the dermis. “You don’t want to give handshakes and always carry hand sanitizer,” he said. “You have to watch what you eat. No buffets, cruises, you have to be careful who prepares your food.”
The first trip Gynovel took after surgery was to Houston to visit his son Zuri, a student at University of Texas at El Paso, play football at Rice. “Just to see my son was like getting a piece of my life back,” he said.
The Wylie heart recipient is now a champion for organ donation and volunteers at Southwest Transplant Alliance. There are 10,210 people waiting for organs and 385 donors in 2017. “One body can save six to eight people,” he said. “My biggest thing I think about every day is how was I was born in 1970 and this person was 22 or 23 years old? How did we meet March 26? How did our lives cross at that moment?”
In another month, Gynovel will celebrate his one-year anniversary with a two-day gamut of tests. He will have his 41st heart biopsy to check the heart, vessels, and the area around the heart and cells. No cake is needed – he has been given the gift of life.
“No one can truly understand what it’s like” he said. “To me, next to mom birthing me and God giving me life, I can’t think of nothing else. I love my kids. They kept me alive but that gift that was given me? Every day when I wake up I thank God.”