Rob Serbent, from Nashville, Ind., knows how it feels to be healthy and strong. An avid mountain biker, the 47-year-old says until 2009, it’s all he’d ever known.
“I’d never been sick in my life and had always been active and healthy,” says Rob, who works in technology services at Indiana University. “I biked five to six times a week, and did a couple of endurance races a year.”
In December 2009 when he began struggling to keep up on rides and had symptoms of a cold, he knew something wasn’t right. Instead of his “cold” running it’s normal course, his condition got worse. Little did he know, the symptoms of what was diagnosed and treated as a chest infection over the Christmas holidays, were actually symptoms of blood clots in his heart and lungs.
“My wife (Julie) took me to the emergency room at Indiana University Health Bloomington Hospital when I began coughing up blood,” remembers Rob. That’s when tests revealed the blood clots. Doctors believe the blood clots developed after Rob contracted a virus that caused heart failure.
Blood clots lead to more problems
After three weeks in the hospital, Rob’s condition stabilized, but the blood clots left his heart weak and permanently damaged. His cardiologist hoped, with time, his heart would heal, but Rob faced the possibility of needing a transplant.
His physician referred Rob to cardiac specialists at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital. They too, hoped time, medicine and a low-sodium and low-fat diet would promote healing and prevent the need for a transplant.
Gradually the approach worked, at least somewhat. Rob was able to get back to work, but his bike was parked.
“I could get through daily tasks, but I didn’t have energy to do much else,” he recalls.
However, in April 2011, Rob’s condition went into a steep decline. By the end of the month, he was back in the hospital. Because Rob’s heart was so weak, major organs weren’t getting enough blood, causing them to shut down.
”My kidneys, liver … you name it, they weren’t working,” says Rob.
He was also dealing with sepsis, a potentially life-threatening complication of an infection, which can also lead to organ failure.
A transplant was now a necessity. Until a heart became available, Rob’s heart would need the help of a biventricular assist device (BIVAD), a mechanical device that helps a weakened heart pump blood from both chambers (ventricles) of the heart to the body and vital organs. On May 1, Rob had surgery to connect his heart to the external pump with tubes that passed through small holes in his abdomen.
“Once I went on the BIVAD, my organs started coming back and my problems began clearing up, but I was still in and out of it the month of May,” says Rob.
“I might get out of this.”
His condition stabilized by the end of June and Rob says he could see light at the end of the tunnel, even though he knew he would be in the hospital indefinitely, waiting on a heart.
“I saw good things: my kidneys had shut down but they were back so I didn’t need dialysis. I had nerve damage in my knee from the dialysis and I couldn’t walk, but they thought that was going to come back. I had a colostomy (a surgical opening in his abdomen that allowed waste to leave his body), but they thought it would be reversible,” says Rob. “I thought, ‘It’s a long way away, but I might actually get out of this.’”
He devoted his time to working with physical therapists to regain strength and his ability to walk. Thanks to a portable BIVAD, he wasn’t always confined to his bed or room—nurses wheeled him to the hospital parking garage for 4th of July fireworks, and he often coerced his physical therapists to have therapy outside.
By mid-August, Rob was ready to head back to work—from the hospital, that is. The type of work he did allowed him to work remotely, and on August 15, he says he “woke up in the morning, excited to actually get to work.”
His excitement was redirected, however, when his nurse told him he wasn’t having breakfast, he was most likely having surgery instead—they had a heart and were confirming it was a match.
Twelve hours later, Rob recalls coming back to his room after a successful surgery.
“I remember everyone was smiling, and remember being so thankful for coming through it,” he says.
Only three and a half weeks later, Rob finally headed home.
“I still had hardware—chest tubes and a wound vac—but it was pretty great to move without the BIVAD,” he says.
There’s no place like home
Even better was reuniting with his rat terrier Jack, and a change of scenery after four months of looking out over a city of concrete from his hospital room. Rob recalls driving up their half-mile gravel driveway that winds through woods.
“It was raining, but the wet, green forest was so incredibly beautiful,” he says. “It was amazing.”
By December, Rob was back at work fulltime, and today says life is going really well.
“The BIVAD got me to the point I was healthy enough for the transplant,” he says. “I’m very grateful. My life is back to a point I can live it and do the things I want to do.”
That includes biking again, three to four times a week, along with participating in an occasional race.
“I’m here for my wife and family, I’ve got a great set of friends. I’m happy about that and appreciative for every day.”