German Saldarriaga has a new lease on life after successful heart transplant surgery.
Congestive heart failure left him tired all the time. More than a year ago, the disease shorted his breath, stole his appetite, and set the stage for a grim reality. He was facing death.
Then came Sept. 9, 2009.
"My first born-again day," Saldarriaga said.
Doctors gave him a heart pump, similar to the one former Vice President Dick Cheney received this summer. It relieved Saldarriaga's shortness of breath. The ventricular assist device - or VAD - connected to the heart and aorta and kept blood flowing despite the absence of a heart beat.
Could he hope for a heart transplant?
He received notice his name was on the official heart transplant list around the end of July. Then, doctors found a heart for the former New York City police officer on Sept. 27.
"Three months to the date," Saldarriaga said as his wife of six years, Milja, looked on with moist eyes.
Now, the man with a failing heart has a new heart and a new lease on life.
"It's a whole new day, a whole new life," said Saldarriaga, 40. "I felt the heart beat. I felt like I was alive again."
A big smile danced across his glowing face, and the words kept coming.
"This is a miracle," he said of his new heart. "This is what I worked so hard for. This is what I envisioned. This is a dream come true."
A sigh escaped Milja's mouth as she removed a band from a necklace around her neck. It's where Saldarriaga's wedding band stayed while he underwent his heart transplant, a surgery that lifted restrictions from the couple's lives. A week ago the wedding ring passed from Milja's fingers to Saldarriaga's left ring finger.
"It means a new life," Milja, 39, said. "It means we'll be able to do things we've never been able to do. Now that he has a new heart, there's nothing in the world we can't do. Nothing will hold us back now."
Two hands touch in remembrance.
"When I first met her, I was in the ninth grade," Saldarriaga said. "I said, 'Hello.' I was very good friends with some of her friends. At that time in my life, she was too much of a sweet girl for me. At that point in my life, I was a little too crazy to see what was in front of me."
Saldarriaga built a career as a New York City police officer, but a fight with bronchitis left him behind a desk and prohibited him from helping fellow officers during the Sept. 11terrorist attacks. He returned to full police duty before bronchitis set in again. He retired in 2002.
Eighteen years passed since he last saw Milja. Mutual friends started plans for a 15th year class reunion. Though the plans flopped, Saldarriaga remembered Milja.
"We started talking on e-mail, chat and on the phone," Saldarriaga said. "I was single. She was single."
He was sick.
"I knew about my condition," Saldarriaga said. "I didn't want to get close to anybody and bring them pain."
Yet the two kept in touch and planned to go on a trip with about 25 friends to Las Vegas. "Everybody bailed out," he said.
Saldarriaga and Milja decided to keep their plans and went to Las Vegas.
"Separate rooms. Just friends," Saldarriaga said. "We were just hanging out. We did every magic show in Vegas."
Even though Milja was no fan of magic shows, she stuck by his side. When she got sick on the trip, he stuck by her side. When they tried to fly back to New York City and ended up spending 24 hours at the airport, Saldarriaga smoothed out the rough spots.
Back in New York City, a relationship grew, and the couple married June 19, 2004. Two years later, they moved to Fort Mill. Health complications returned in 2009, leaving Saldarriaga in a bed at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte. His heart was failing him.
"They basically told me that there was nothing they could do," Saldarriaga recalled.
"My heart had basically deteriorated."
A miracle in the making
With compromised health, a heart transplant wasn't an option, so doctors inserted the VAD on Sept. 9, 2009. Then, one year and two weeks later, the phone rang with news of a new heart.
"They told me that they had a possible match," he said. "They were doing testing as they called me."
That was around 9:45 a.m. on Sept. 27. Doctors wanted him to come to CMC. He called Milja and told her of the possible heart.
"I'm like, 'Stop, you're lying. Don't kid me,'" Milja said.
He drove the speed limit to the hospital.
"I took my time. I enjoyed the ride," he said. "That was my victory lap."
But the couple didn't have confirmation of a match until Milja's cell phone rang moments after the they arrived at the hospital.
"That's when they told us it was 100 percent negative, meaning there was no rejection," Milja said. "It was a 100 percent match."
Six hours later, doctors started working on Saldarriaga. Around 3:30 a.m. the next morning, they finished the surgery. Saldarriaga woke up about four hours later.
"I looked around and said, 'OK. I'm here. It's real,'" Saldarriaga recalled of his post surgery. "This day has been written for me. I've got nothing but time now."
Saldarriaga was discharged from CMC on Oct. 5. For the 20-year-old man whose heart beats within Saldarriaga's chest, he offers gratitude.
"The deed that he has done is so grand," Saldarriaga said. "The only thing I can do is be humble and help as many people as I can."
For now, recuperation is key, but planning is afoot.
"Once he's able, I'd like to go to Vegas," Milja said.
"That's the start of everything, the start of us. It will be like a second honeymoon."