Life can change in a heartbeat
Gabe Cruser, 46, of Holton, has a new lease on life thanks to advances in medical science.
In the last two and a half years, he’s been on a journey that will continue the rest of his life. He’s a heart transplant recipient.
From his teenage years, Gabe knew he had problems with his heart. “I had an excessive rapid heart rate,” he told The Versailles Republican, “and was taking a cocktail of three medicines for it.”
The medical term is cardiomyopathy, meaning the valve wasn’t shutting properly.
Gabe pushed forward in life, got married in 2003 to JoAnna Cruser and the couple had two children, Darrell and Maddy. He was a union worker, always working physical jobs like asphalt, construction, pipeline, and truck driving.
That all changed in December of 2018, when he was so “winded” he could barely breath. Of course, he worked that day, but had to be taken to the emergency room where they found out he was in serious shape. JoAnna remembers the time well, saying he only had 20% heart function and the doctors were looking grim. She remembers being told to call in the family and they waited.
Gabe was in a medically induced coma for several days and finally on December 12 was able to come home for a little bit. They had taken 16 liters of water from his chest cavity, and he knew it wasn’t a fix, but rather a short reprieve until he could have more surgery. He went through having a pacemaker, defibrillator (could only put in a two-lead, instead of the traditional three-lead), and on February 27, 2019, he was fitted with a LVAD, a battery powered heart.
The LVAD would keep him alive until a heart donor could be found. The Cruser family knew the situation was serious and everywhere they went Gabe had to have a place to plug in his “heart”.
In August of 2020, Gabe got the call. “We’ve got aheart.” With that call, he knew he only had four hours to get to the hospital in Indianapolis on 86th Street. The couple were grocery shopping in Greensburg and knew they had to get home, unload groceries, get the needed items to take to the hospital and arrive there within the golden time frame. Of course, he might have been going a little fast, and yes, there was a state trooper waiting to stop him and tell him so. “I just couldn’t believe it,” Gabe noted. He told the officer, “You’re never going to believe this excuse” and sure enough the officer didn’t and had to have Gabe get out of the car and sit in the cruiser until he could verify the story!
There were more stories from that night. Gabe went through three hearts in a 24-hour period that were “just not right”. It was disappointing, but the Crusers kept their hopes high and waited for the right heart.
“What would you like most for your birthday?” was a question posed to Maddy the night before her sixteenth birthday. “For my dad to get a match,” was her instant reply. On October 13, Maddy’s birthday, everyone’s wish came true. The Crusers got the call – and went to Indianapolis. This time, there was a perfect match.
Dr. Christopher Salerno, the surgeon, was waiting and ready to give Gabe a new lease on life. “The only downside to all of this was – somebody had to die for me to live,” Gabe noted. He said he is forever grateful for the person who made the decision to be a donor. He doesn’t know the donor or their family but knows what the gift they gave means to him. “We have reached out to the family, but they’re not ready yet, and maybe never will be,” the Crusers shared. They are grateful and just want them to know.
Life has changed for the Crusers. “I can’t say I’ve ever felt better,” Gabe shared, saying he does know his limitations now. He’s made friends through the transplant site and participated in a walk with one of them to raise money. “We can compare notes on our experiences – it’s someone I have something in common with,” Gabe explained. He said he learns from the others who have had this experience before him, and hopefully he can help someone who is just starting the journey.
There have been some hiccups along the way. Recently Gabe went through IVIG treatment for antibody mediated rejection. His body had too many antibodies and that caused the problem. He keeps in contact with his cardio doctor, Dr. Ravichandran, and tries to follow the rules to having a transplanted heart.
The medical situation has propelled their son Darrell to follow his dream of psychology, and has changed the course for their daughter, Maddy, who has been accepted at Beckfield School of Nursing. She hopes one day to work with the Donor’s Network.
Gabe enjoys life – one heartbeat at a time.