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Kraig Gresham was 47 years old when he received his heart transplant, but his journey to that life-changing surgery began years earlier. Kraig was born with aortic stenosis — a birth defect that causes heart valves to narrow and obstruct blood flow. As a child he had heart problems as a result of his condition. Despite that, Kraig was able to lead an active lifestyle, participating in sports like soccer and racquetball from the time he was young.
As an adult, Kraig knew he would eventually need a valve replacement due to his chronic heart condition. But when he began having bronchitis-like symptoms in his 40s, he was referred to Mayo Clinic with a more immediate problem: he was experiencing heart failure.
“They didn’t want to mess with me at the local hospital,” Kraig says. “When I got to Mayo, I was pretty bad.”
Kraig was put on the waiting list for a heart transplant. As he waited, his care team at Mayo Clinic helped him stay as healthy and active as possible. When the time came for the transplant, Kraig was ready … and extremely grateful.
“Organ donation and transplant is a very personal choice, but it definitely saves lives,” he says.
Because of the poor condition Kraig was in when he first arrived at Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus, his care team recommended implanting a left ventricular assist device — a mechanical pump that helps the heart circulate blood through the body. The pump helped keep Kraig alive for two years until a heart became available to him for a transplant.
After the device was implanted, Kraig’s blood flow and oxygen levels improved. He returned to his home in St. Joseph, Missouri, and to his usual routines, including going to work and playing competitive racquetball.
Although the ventricular assist device allowed Kraig to be more active, he eventually developed blood clots that required a return to Mayo Clinic for a pump replacement. While he was recovering from that procedure, Kraig received the news that a donor heart had been found.
“When they found a heart, I didn’t believe them,” he says. “They were having a benefit for me at home in Missouri when I got the news, and my son got to tell everyone who had gathered at the benefit. It was a very special moment.”
The following day, Kraig received his heart transplant. Because the assist device had allowed him to regain much of his strength, his recovery from the transplant procedure was an easier than expected. With the help of his care team, Kraig was up and moving the day after the transplant. He went to a transplant recovery house within two weeks of the surgery.
Never one to let his health condition limit his active lifestyle, Kraig began playing racquetball at a gym in Rochester within weeks of his transplant. After a four-month stay in the transplant house, he went home to St. Joseph. Within five months, Kraig was back at work with no restrictions, and he played in his first racquetball tournament.
“My racquetball buddies thought I’d never be back,” Kraig says. “But not only am I back and playing every day, I’m beating them!”
As Kraig’s life was starting anew, his gratitude for his donor was endless. Kraig was able to reach out to the donor’s family and has since formed a close bond with them. During an emotional weekend that the family and Kraig spent together, the donor’s family heard their loved one’s heartbeat again. The two families continue to stay in contact.
“While transplant allows one family to stay intact, one doesn’t,” Kraig says. “One family is suffering, while one is rejoicing. Being able to meet and form a relationship has helped everyone heal.”
Kraig credits the team at Mayo Clinic for his successful outcome and for his new lease on life.
“The staff and nurses who took care of me are really amazing,” he says. “They were always by my side, always willing to talk to me and keep me informed of what to do. If there was ever a concern, they would get things figured out.”
Kraig is now 49 years old and lives with his wife and three sons in St. Joseph. He continues to play racquetball regularly and plans to compete in the 2017 Transplant Games, a sporting event held every two years for those who have received a transplant or who have been living donors.
“There are many people who need transplants who never get to the point I did and never get to experience life the way I have,” Kraig says. “This whole experience has been a miracle. I got another chance to raise my family.”