A new lease on life with a heart transplant
In May 2016, 37-year-old Tero Hämäläinen began experiencing a cough that would not go away.
At first, it was thought that this was an exacerbation of his asthma, which Hämäläinen had suffered from since he was a child. The summer was spent scraping by with asthma medication, and eventually Hämäläinen was able to see a pulmonary specialist.
In August, X-rays showed that Hämäläinen’s heart had become enlarged. From this point, things started rolling at a fast pace. A few hours after the examination, Hämäläinen sat waiting in the Emergency Department of Peijas Hospital for internal medicine and was required to stay overnight for observation.
“During the night, my condition collapsed. I kind of received permission to become ill. The next morning we arrived at Meilahti in an ambulance with sirens blazing, and I wondered what all the rush was about. I didn't realize how ill I was,” Hämäläinen says.
A ventricular assist device to support heart function
At the Cardiac Unit, a quick decision was made that Hämäläinen required an operation. After four days, Hämäläinen was fitted with a left ventricular assist device when, despite the heart-lung machine, the situation had developed for the worse.
“My relatives had been told that I had a 50-50 chance of surviving the surgical procedure to insert the ventricular assist device, because I was in such poor health. A couple of days after the surgery, I had my first memories after arriving at Meilahti. It was my birthday and my wife fed me birthday cake.”
After installation of the ventricular assist device, Hämäläinen’s condition began to improve and he returned to his work as a figure skating coach three months after the surgery.
“I was able to live a fairly full life with the device. My only worry was that I needed to remember to keep enough batteries with me,” Hämäläinen says.
Quick recovery from a heart transplantation
Approximately six months after the installation of the ventricular assist device, Hämäläinen received a call that a new heart had been found. The heart transplant surgery went well and just five days after the surgery, he was already walking with a physiotherapist from floor P of Meilahti Tower Hospital to the 15th floor.
“They said that it was a record of some sort. Seven days after the transplant surgery, I was already discharged from the hospital. After the ventricular assist device surgery, rehabilitation seemed difficult, and after the transplant, everything seemed to go very smoothly. I wondered if this was it.”
“Since then, I have been active in my rehabilitation efforts. Eight weeks after the surgery, I received special permission to start running when walking didn't seem to develop my condition sufficiently. And 2.5 months after the surgery, I had already fully returned to work, also with special permission.”
Hämäläinen has always had high ambitions in life, and recovering from surgery was no exception for him. Immediately after both procedures, he had promised that he would do everything he could to heal and recover.
“I remember asking the physiotherapist after installation of the ventricular assist device if anyone had run a half marathon with the device, and it seems not, at least not to the physiotherapist’s knowledge. So, we then made a plan with that in mind. I owe a big thanks to the personnel here for taking my crazy ideas into consideration. Nobody has told me that you will not be able to do this or that or that something would not be possible. It’s a big thing to have hope and when everything goes well, that there is the opportunity to return to normal life.”
“The things that I am able to influence, I try to do as well as possible. During this entire time, I have felt that the people here really know what they are doing. Everything has gone beyond expectations. I believe that my story is a testament to the fact that when a motivated patient who is actively involved in the treatment process and competent personnel meet, anything is possible."
Heart transplantation enabled a return to active everyday life
Hämäläinen’s background as an athlete has taught him a lot, and he feels it is the reason why he is mentally so strong. The lifestyle changes have not been that significant for the former top athlete, as they could have been for many people who have undergone a heart transplant. Heart disease and transplantation were, of course, big issues to deal with for Hämäläinen.
“With the help of the ventricular assist device, I was able to improve my fitness and better my chances of surviving a heart transplant. The transfer enabled me to return to an active, fitness-filled everyday life, which I can now live to the fullest with the help of my new heart.”
The support of his wife, family and in-laws throughout the entire process has also been very important to Hämäläinen. The illness and the treatment process have also brought the Hämäläinen family even closer together and changed everyone’s life values and their appreciation of life.
“I feel that today, we are all stronger people who value the little things that are good in life. I feel so lucky. I have been given so much here; a new life.”