When 29-year-old Robert Toth had a cold he couldn’t shake, he never imagined it signaled a failing heart.
“Come April, once this all hit, it went downhill fast,” Toth, of Dalton, Ga., told FoxNews.com. “I didn’t go back to work after that. I would get out of bed because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but I would go sit on the couch and sleep on the couch the rest of the day because I didn’t have energy to do anything.”
Toth, known better by friends and family as “Andy,” is one in more than 5 million patients diagnosed with congestive heart failure in the United States. For many patients, the condition manifests by heart attack. For others— like Toth— it appeared to manifest as a virus.
Toth began coughing and sneezing in mid-February 2014, and he thought he had a common cold. In March, his doctor gave him an antibiotic because the medication didn’t alleviate his shortness of breath.
A CT scan in April would reveal that Toth’s heart was enlarged, and an EKG suggested his heart rate had increased.
Doctors diagnosed Toth with cardiomyopathy, a condition meaning “heart muscle weakness” that prevents the heart from meeting the demands of the body, and causes congestive heart failure. The disease is most commonly diagnosed among people over age 50, but about one-third of diagnosed patients are younger, like Toth.
Toth’s father had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure just three years before, and he was on a low-sodium diet and a regimen of medications to help his heart function normally. Congestive heart failure can be hereditary, as doctors would later suspect for Toth.
“We thought, ‘Well, we’re going to be living the same kind of lifestyle as my dad and family,’” Toth said. “We knew it wasn’t optimal. It was scary, but we thought, ‘There’s someone we can go to for advice. It’s not like we’re going to be trekking new ground by ourselves.’”
Searching for a new antidote
Some cardiomyopathy patients— like Toth’s father— can be treated with medication, but Toth’s condition continued to worsen over a month with an ACE inhibitor and later a beta blocker.
Because of his condition, Toth had to leave his job as a sign language interpreter at a high school in Dalton, located in northwest Georgia.
“When his heart took him from of us, it not only broke him, but it broke us too,” 18-year-old Katie Glover, one of Toth’s former students at Coahulla Creek High School, told FoxNews.com. Glover was in the sign language class that Toth started at the school. Toth “cares so much” about his students, Glover said.
“I was in color guard my senior year, and he came to almost all of the home games,” she said. “He feels like another dad to me.”
“His wife sent me a message and said that he was in the hospital,” Glover recalled, “and I was absolutely heartbroken knowing that I couldn’t help … and he had been there for me for so long, and I couldn’t do anything.”
As his heart struggled to beat, Toth would plop down on the couch and turn on the TV, not bothering to flip through the channels.
“He is one of those people that’s full of energy, and love for reaching out and doing things for people and giving things to people,” Christina “Christi” Toth, 27, told FoxNews.com. “He’s also a gamer. He loves Nintendo games and retro games. When he’s sick, he sits at home and plays video games.”
But this time, he didn’t play. “That was when I knew we were in trouble,” she said.
The Toths decided to go back to the doctor, who immediately recommended that Andy visit the Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, where he was admitted into the ICU. Within a day of his admission, his liver and kidneys began to fail because he was retaining fluid, and his heart wasn’t pumping enough blood to power his body.
“When I had heard that he was having this problem down there in Georgia, I went down there as soon as I could to visit him,” David Ringheimer, 29, who’s known Andy since their high school-age years and shared a dorm with him as a freshman at Tennessee Temple University. “I could’ve just called to say we were praying for you, but I would do just about anything for him.”
Ringheimer’s children, ages 8 and 5, sent Andy “get well soon” drawings while he was in the hospital. And his parents, who consider Andy a second son, he said, visited him in the hospital as well.
Getting a second opinion
Doctors sent Toth home from Atlanta on an IV and another round of heart medications, but the Toths wanted a second opinion. So in June, the couple, who were expecting their first child, made the nearly nine-hour drive to the Cleveland Clinic, close to where Christi’s family lived, to learn more about Andy’s condition. In the car, Andy’s nausea and shortness of breath returned.
“When [Andy] showed up in my office, he was extremely ill,” Dr. David Taylor, director of the advanced heart failure and transplant cardiology fellowship program at the Cleveland Clinic, told FoxNews.com. “He showed up with low blood pressure, severe shortness of breath, and he couldn’t even sit up from a lying position on the table without gasping for breath.”
In the ICU at the Cleveland Clinic, doctors used a balloon pump to sustain Toth’s heart, and they placed him on the heart transplant list. Meantime, they discussed providing him with a left ventricle assistive device (LVAD), a battery-operated mechanical pump placed in the heart, complete with a power line running out of the stomach.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, there are more than 4,000 people waiting for a heart transplant in the U.S. In 2014, there were 1,959 heart transplants done in the country.
“They (the doctors) were saying there’s no way you’re going to get a heart— it doesn’t happen that fast,” Toth said.
But it did.
The Monday that Andy was to receive the LVAD implant, the Toths’ insurance didn’t go through, which they would later discover was a blessing. The next day—July 1, 2014— a donor match came through. Andy would have a new heart.
“It was exciting and scary, and I remember crying for the donor’s family on the way in,” Christi Toth said. “I was so excited that he was getting a heart but also sad to know that someone else lost their loved one.”
Taylor said Andy’s average height and weight helped him get a heart quickly.
The average heart transplant lasts 13.5 years, so Andy likely will need a second a transplant.
“I always tell my patients, ‘It’s not a cure. We didn’t cure your problem. We just traded problems: We traded your bad heart for a good heart, but there’s some baggage that comes along with it,’” Taylor said.
Although Andy’s relatively young age didn’t expedite his getting a donor match, it has increased his recovery speed from the surgery, Taylor said.
A fresh start
In October, Christi gave birth to baby Zachary Leon, and in January, Toth returned to work as a sign language interpreter—at a new school and with a new student. He must take about 20 pills a day to help prevent his body from rejecting the foreign heart, Taylor said. Following his surgery, Toth had been doing cardio exercises three times a week, and he expects to continue exercising since resuming his job.
In fall 2013, prior to the onset of his illness, Toth had also been taking online classes to earn his master’s degree in teaching sign language and interpretation. Throughout his illness and recovery time, he continued to take the classes periodically and still does so today.
Christi, a former sign language interpreter— who met Andy while they were students at Tennessee Temple University— said that she never lost faith throughout Andy’s road to recovery.
“Right after he was initially diagnosed, I was in a Bible study, and I really felt like God was telling me that Andy was going through this as a faith builder— to build my faith and our faith— and there was part of me that knew he never would really die,” Christi said.