Christy Crowe was mad.
Mad at the circumstances. Mad at everything.
She was even kind of mad at God.
Weeks earlier, an infection had attacked her youngest brother's heart. He needed a transplant.
The family waited and prayed for a donor.
Finally, the transplant team found a heart. But hours later, doctors delivered terrible news:
Her brother, Michael, had developed blood poisoning.
If they proceeded with the transplant, the infection could kill him.
“Our joy of ‘Yay, there's a heart!' went to devastation,” Christy said.
The roller-coaster ride was one of many the Crowe family would take over the course of a month as doctors worked to keep the 23-year-old alive. The Crowes got through it by trusting the doctors and praying — a lot — for God's help.
The notion that Michael would need a new heart had been unthinkable just a few weeks before.
Michael was about to start his second year at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy. He worked as a pharmacy tech.
Known for his kindness, he baked cookies for his study group. Early in his hospitalization, classmates wrote on a giant card that they missed his smile and upbeat personality.
Michael, a Skutt Catholic High School graduate, didn't go to church every week but was a faith-filled person, said his mom, Margie.
On Aug. 13, Michael felt sick. His mother told him to take it easy.
The next day he started vomiting and had a fever and chills. The day after, the family doctor drew blood, ruled out a bacterial infection and concluded that Michael had a bad case of stomach flu. Take Pepto-Bismol, he advised, and drink lots of fluids.
Michael wasn't sick often. He figured he would get better. But his mom took him back to the family home near 156th Street and West Center Road instead of his apartment.
Two days later, Michael told Margie he was hungry. She gave him applesauce, flipped on the Ellen DeGeneres TV show, then turned toward her son.
Michael was stiff on the couch. Frozen — with his eyes open.
Margie shook him. He snapped out of it, sweating profusely even though his temperature was 96. Margie changed his shirt and got him back to the couch.
Again, he froze. Stiff as a statue. Eyes open.
Margie shook her son and hit his face. Michael felt the slaps but was unable to speak.
Ten seconds later, he came around.
Margie rushed him to nearby Lakeside Hospital, where doctors ran tests on his heart. A cardiologist told Margie and her husband, John, that Michael had a serious heart problem and needed to go to the Nebraska Medical Center.
Margie couldn't believe what was happening. She'd thought Michael was dehydrated.
At the med center, doctors determined he had acute myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, an uncommon condition likely caused by a viral infection.
His heart was functioning at only 10 percent efficiency. With a sluggish blood flow, Michael's other organs were starting to fail.
The bottom line: He needed a heart transplant.
In the meantime, doctors sedated Michael and hooked him up to a machine that took over his heart and lung functions and filtered his blood — a short-term fix.
That night, classmates came to the hospital, as did the Rev. Tom Bauwens, pastor at the family's church, St. Wenceslaus Catholic.
Friends soon started a prayer chain. Christy, 31, drove from Minneapolis and posted daily updates on the Caring Bridge website. Michael's page attracted more than 30,000 visitors and 1,100 comments.
Through an email blast, St. Wenceslaus asked its 3,000 families to pray for Michael.
Christy, a neonatal intensive care nurse, helped her parents and her other brother, Jimmy, 28, understand what was happening at the hospital.
One complication after another filled the next two weeks.
Michael's heart stopped twice, once for more than a day.
Anti-clotting medication thinned his blood so much that it leaked around a tube in his groin, requiring daily transfusions. His lungs filled with blood.
The need for a new heart seemed more pressing. Just before Labor Day, doctors told the family that his heart was “gone.”
The family prayed that a new heart would come soon.
On Labor Day, the Crowes got an early phone call: Meet with the transplant coordinator at 6:30 a.m. — they'd found the perfect heart for Michael. It would arrive in Omaha by 5 p.m.
Shortly after the call, news from infectious disease doctors crushed the family's spirits. Michael had blood poisoning. It was too dangerous to transplant his heart.
An hour after that, Dr. Eugenia Raichlin, a heart failure and transplant physician, noticed something strange: Michael's blood pressure was up. But the heart-lung machine keeps blood pressure steady. How could it go up?
She ordered an ultrasound of the heart: The left chamber was back to normal.
The right ventricle didn't work, Raichlin said, but the turn of events “gave us great hope.” Dr. John Um, a cardiothoracic surgeon, told the family he was going to cancel the transplant. The doctors trusted that Michael's heart would mend.
“No!” Christy said. “Give him the (donor) heart!'” She had lost hope that her brother's heart would recover.
But Um outlined the risks of a transplant while Michael battled the blood infection. The family then agreed with the doctors and the heart went to someone else.
Michael was switched to a machine that assisted only the right side of his heart. After four days, his heart worked on its own.
The recovery was nothing short of miraculous, Margie said.
“It just truly is a medical miracle,” she said. “Excellent medical care and, I think, the power of prayer.”
In previous years, Um said, Michael “would have gone right to heart transplant, and there would have been no way of knowing whether his heart would have recovered or not.”
Today, he said, wait times for hearts are long, so doctors rely on machines to take over while the heart heals.
Still, neither Raichlin nor Um discounted the idea of something extraordinary.
An MRI of Michael's heart, Raichlin said, didn't find permanent damage or scars.
Said the doctor, a native of Belarus: “We think this is miracle.”
Doctors removed Michael's breathing tube on Sept. 9 and brought him out of sedation. Not long after, he looked at his chest and asked Christy, “Where's my scar?” He'd assumed doctors had performed the transplant.
But his heart hadn't failed him.
It took him awhile to get his voice back, to swallow, to walk. He went home Thursday.
He must take medications and follow a low-sodium diet. He plans to return to work soon and go back to school next August.
Thursday night, Christy wrote a “Michael's home” note on Caring Bridge.
She had gotten over the frustration she had experienced on Labor Day. But she wondered why miracles happened for some people and not for others.
“I guess that's (an) unanswered question I will just have to accept for now,” she wrote. “I'm so grateful that things have worked out for my brother.”
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