Thanks to a miraculous heart transplant, a local volunteer and civic leader is not taking a single day for granted
By Pete Smith
Winston Long said that on the evening of Nov. 15, 2010, he made one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
Earlier in the evening he had attended a Carmel City Council meeting, and as vice president of Omni Centre for Public Media he had lobbied the council not to make further cuts to public funding for the government television channel his company produced content for.
Winston said he had felt a pressing feeling in his chest as he ascended the flight of stairs in city hall to the council chambers. But it went away, and he didn’t think anything of it.
After his testimony, Winston went home to prepare a dinner of oriental soup. His wife, Sandra Long, said that he appeared to be out of breath.
And at just that moment, the pain in Winston’s chest returned – and this time it stayed, radiating down his arms.
“I jumped up and asked Sandra to take me immediately to the heart center,” he said, thinking it would take the fire department more than five minutes to get to his Brookshire neighborhood house.
And as the medical response team could have begun lifesaving procedures on the spot, Sandra and Winston sped off into the night on Carmel’s empty streets in a race against time.
When they did make it to St.Vincent’s Heart Center, they were fortunate enough not to have to wait, and the doctors began treating Winston immediately. Fortunate because within the following 45 minutes, the hospital would admit five more patients suffering from heart attacks.
Any delay could have cost Winston his life because a heart attack is not a single event; it continues to damage the heart muscle until treated. Driving to the hospital lost valuable time and did additional damage to the heart.
‘Where your heart guides you’
Natives of Birmingham, Ala., Winston and Sandra moved to Carmel in 1975 when he accepted a position as an associate professor of nursing at IUPUI.
But when he began doing consulting work focused on media productions, he found a new passion. And by the time he had gained tenure at the university, he decided to leave it all and pursue his own company – Omni Productions – full-time.
“You’ve got to go where your heart guides you,” he said. “That’s so important.”
And Winston and Sandra began their Indiana lives in Carmel right from the start.
“This is where you want to live,” Winston recalls Elizabeth Grossman, the dean of the IUPUI School of Nursing, telling him at the time.
Which was a leap of faith at the time because Carmel was largely an undeveloped community with cornfields as far as you could see, he said.
“I got involved in city affairs when Jane Reiman was mayor,” Winston said.
He said that at that time, Alabama was still considered a Democratic state, and he was a registered member of that party. Well, Reiman needed to appoint two Republicans and a Democrat to the newly formed Carmel Police Commission.
“Mayor Reiman didn’t know any Democrats,” Winston recalls then-police chief Jerry Lowe telling him.
So with the appointment, he began serving his first four-year tenure on the police commission until it was disbanded. When the commission was reconstituted as the police merit board in 2009, Winston was appointed again. He has also served on the cable and telecommunications commission and in other capacities within the city.
“If I’m able, I’m more than willing to serve where I’m needed,” Winston said.
Paying attention to clues
Winston can recall the first time he felt something was wrong – in October 2010.
He was using a self-propelled mower to mulch leaves and felt a slight pressure in his chest.
“It was only there for about five seconds, but it was enough that I asked myself, ‘Am I having a heart attack?’” Winston said. “And then when it went away I thought, ‘Obviously not.’ So that was the first sign of trouble, and I blew it off.”
Winston is now a strong advocate for encouraging people to listen to their bodies and pay attention to the clues they give.
“I have since come to realize that a doctor would rather you go and be checked and find nothing, than not go,” Winston said.
It’s hard-won advice that he hadn’t yet learned when he entered city hall several weeks prior to the fateful night of Nov. 15, 2010. On Oct. 18 he had a pressing feeling in his chest as he climbed the steps at city hall, but didn’t do anything about it.
“I didn’t heed the warning,” he said.
‘I was on a long journey’
Winston’s message now is this: “If someone has an urgent medical need, he or she should call 911.”
Immediate treatment wouldn’t have prevented the single complete artery blockage and five partial blockages. But in cases of congestive heart failure – when the heart is no longer strong enough to maintain enough pumping strength to move blood through the veins – immediate treatment can prevent widespread damage.
In his case, doctors fixed the complete blockage with a stent and then spent the next week coming up with a treatment plan that would save his life.
“That’s when I first knew I was on a long journey,” Winston said.
At the end of the week doctors performed a triple bypass surgery, and two weeks later he was sent home to recuperate.
He began making lifestyle changes that involved cutting out all sodium – along with taking a huge helping of pills of many sorts.
In October 2011 he had an AED and pacemaker installed in his right shoulder, and in March 2012 he had a Left Atrial Pressure Monitor installed in his left shoulder.
With lifestyle changes and surgeries, he lost about 80 pounds and said he felt pretty good until late 2012.
At that point he had been a patient at the Cleveland Clinic Heart Center for about a year-and-a-half, but he had noticed a sudden severe lack of energy and feelings of weakness.
‘You no longer have a pulse’
The doctors at the Cleveland Clinic determined that Winston’s heart was giving out and that he needed a left ventricular assist device, commonly referred to as an LVAD.
The device is not a pacemaker. It is an internal pump that is attached to the heart through open-heart surgery and then powered through an external device using a six-hour battery pack that the user has to wear at all times around the waist.
It’s the device that former vice president Dick Cheney had implanted in him before his 2012 heart transplant.
Prior to the surgery in March 2013, the doctors told Winston, “Don’t be surprised if you no longer have a pulse.”
The reason was that the constant spinning action inside the LVAD removes the rhythmic pulse that the heart muscles create.
But the surgery was a success, and the Longs added more devices and batteries to Winston’s bionic lifestyle.
“I was worried about going through a metal detector because I’d set it off like a Christmas tree,” Winston said. “It’s certainly better than the alternative. I was just thankful to be around every day and spend time with my family.”
Cutting the cord
By 2013 Winston and Sandra had been making regular trips to Cleveland for more than two years. The car rides were filled with redundant vistas of flat land, cornfields and trees.
But they were in for a dose of excitement – actually more of a shriek.
That was the piercing sound of the LVAD alarm that began going off every six minutes in the start of July 2013. It was signaling a “low flow” error.
“It was going to wake me up no matter what I was doing,” Winston said of the sound that kept him sleep-deprived, on edge and restless.
The Cleveland Clinic eventually dispatched an emergency jet to come pick Winston up and fly him to Cleveland.
After a 45-minute flight, reality began to sink in.
With his heart now at a point of total failure and constant alarm sounds coming from the LVAD that was not functioning at all, Winston said he had one constant thought – he didn’t know what remained of his original heart without the LVAD’s help.
Doctors decided to cut the half-inch diameter cable going from the external controller to the pump attached to his heart. After the cord was cut, Winston felt no differently. Fortunately, what remained of his damaged heart continued to function.
But the only option at that point was a heart transplant.
‘A divine gift’
“Some patients actually stay in the hospital for months waiting on a donor organ,” he said. “But as the Lord would have it … no organ was available.”
It was July 3, 2013, and his doctors told him plainly that he simply had a few days left at best.
So Winston said goodbye to his family and waited.
But on July 4 – in Cleveland, of all places – a 26-year-old man died in a car wreck, and he was an organ donor and a perfect match for Winston.
“The heart was a divine gift,” he said.
So on July 5 he said goodbye to his family a second time – he knew there was a chance he would not wake up from the serious open-heart surgery needed to remove the devices from his body and then undergo the heart transplant.
But the 14-hour heart transplant surgery was deemed a success, until doctors found that an artery had ruptured in Winston’s chest. So he had to undergo another open-heart surgery to repair the damage – his fourth in three years.
“After all of this my doctor joked that they should have just put hinges on my chest with a clasp to close it up,” he said
He would spend five weeks recuperating at the Cleveland Clinic following the surgeries, but it was a small price to pay for a second chance at life.
“I let, over the years, the good life get me,” he said. “I’m not going to allow that to happen again.”
‘I did not give up’
The road back to full strength has been slow. Winston takes his time now, avoids stairs and goes to physical therapy to rebuild his muscles.
But the vision of being wheeled down the hospital corridor before the transplant has stayed with him, and he said he’ll never forget the uncertainty he felt as the lights passed by and the operating doors opened.
“Yes, I did think I was going to die,” he said. “But no, I did not give up. I wasn’t going to accept that as an answer.”
Winston said he wasn’t ready to leave his family or his grandchildren.
He also said he made a covenant with God on that gurney. He said he promised to share his story so other people can hopefully take better care of themselves and remember to call 911 in cases of emergency.
He also would like to thank the family of the man who donated him his new heart.
“His putting ‘donor’ on his license has saved two lives and probably more,” Winston said. “It’s the right thing for all of us to do.”