As Wesley Woods lay on his hospital bed, hooked up to machines that kept him alive, he thought about dying.
For nearly 20 years he battled heart disease. He’d had nine heart attacks, multiple surgeries and one heart transplant.
But that heart, after one year, was failing him.
He was tired of hospitals. He was tired of chest pain. He was tired of feeling tired.
Woods, 51, glanced across the room at his longtime girlfriend, Lesa Allen, and thought again.
“I thought, ‘Well, she’s not giving up. I guess I better not,’ ” Woods said.
Three months later, on Jan. 6, the Underwood, Iowa, man received a second heart transplant.
Repeat organ transplants are rare, said Dr. Adam Burdorf, a cardiologist at the Nebraska Medical Center.
Nationally between 3 and 4 percent of transplant patients receive a second heart, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
The medical center has performed 262 heart transplants since 2005. Of those, 12 have been repeat procedures, according to the organ sharing group. (Six patients had both their first and second transplants performed at the Omaha hospital.)
“The whole effort has a higher risk of complications,” Burdorf said, including an increased risk of rejection, bleeding and wound healing. It also means giving a second organ to one patient while others are still waiting for their first — a decision doctors don’t take lightly.
The transplant team decided to give Woods — younger than many of the hospital’s transplant patients — a second chance.
“Even though his heart was very sick, overall he was healthy enough to do well with a second transplant,” Burdorf said. “He did a really good job taking care of his heart.”
Woods, a truck driver, was diagnosed with heart disease after his first heart attack at age 32. He had finished loading hogs into his trailer and headed out of Omaha. He made it about 10 miles before he knew something was wrong.
“It was like someone dumped a bucket of water over me. Then my legs went numb. My arms went numb,” he said.
He was treated at Nebraska Medicine-Bellevue and released a few days later. He attended cardiac rehabilitation classes, revamped his eating habits and quit smoking. But the lifestyle changes didn’t stop him from having eight more heart attacks. The most recent was in 2013.
Over the years, he underwent bypass surgery and had 12 stents inserted in his heart. Still, he experienced persistent chest pain, fatigue and shortness of breath, and eventually his heart function dropped to 20 percent. He bounced around to different hospitals, where doctors told him there was nothing more they could do.
In April 2015 he went to the Nebraska Medical Center, and doctors decided to place him on the transplant list.
“We just went from ‘There’s no hope for you’ to ‘We’re going to put you on the transplant list,’ ” Allen said.
Woods received a call at 5:20 a.m. on Sept. 22, 2015, that a heart was waiting for him. The next day he was the recipient of a new heart, one that had belonged to a 20-year-old woman.
For a year, the new heart served him well. He purchased a new truck and trailer to get back to work. Following his heart-healthy lifestyle, Woods dropped 35 pounds.
Then his body started rejecting the heart. The organ was pumping at 15 percent. Woods was shocked three times the night he was admitted into the hospital in September.
While up to a quarter of transplant patients start to reject their new organ within the first year, most cases can be treated with medication, said Burdorf, who specializes in transplants. Woods’ case was more severe in how quickly it struck. When he returned to the hospital, his heart was so weak that his body struggled to support its other organs. He considered moving to hospice for end-of-life care.
“He was just kind of in a dying mode,” his girlfriend said. “It was hard on him. Whatever decision he made, I was with him. But I also said, ‘It’s not your time yet. The doctors aren’t ready to give up on you. I’m not ready to give up on you.’ ”
Woods wasn’t ready to give up, either.
“You’ve got to stay positive,” he said.
While waiting for a new heart, Woods would need an artificial one to push blood through his body.
The device — two pieces of plastic adhered together — was inserted into his chest, and tubes connected it to a pump outside his body. Woods had the device in for about 3½ months.
In January he received his new heart, from a 26-year-old man.
His outcome should be as good as a primary transplant patient, though it’s early to tell, said Dr. John Um, a transplant surgeon who treats Woods.
Generally, after one year with a transplant organ, survival rates are 92 percent. That rate drops to 74 percent at the five-year mark and to 55 percent at the 10-year mark, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
Since his transplant, Woods visits the medical center about once a week. At home, his regimen includes inserting an IV with antibiotics into his arm three times a day, taking two shots a day and taking more than 30 pills a day. The further removed he is from the transplant, the less intensive his routine will be.
Woods is eager to get back to work. He looks forward to traveling the country as he recovers.
Burdorf, who helped treat Woods, said he is impressed by the patience and optimism Woods has displayed.
And he said Woods has been pretty lucky to have received a second heart.
“I don’t know if he bought a lottery ticket when he left the hospital, but he probably should have,” Burdorf said.