All Heart: How a Heart Transplant Became a Hail Mary for Juan Jones

Juan Jones heart transplant recipient

When Juan Jones, a senior at New Kent High School in New Kent, Va., recalls the events of his past two years, he exudes a humble gratitude and strength of faith that belie his 17 years. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Surely few things could engender thankfulness more than a successful recovery after a heart transplant.

And when Juan’s father, Woodrow “Woody” Jones, speaks of his son, he alternates between a similar gravity of conviction and an effusive joy. No doubt every day feels like a celebration when you’ve seen a miracle of medicine pull your only child back from a near-death precipice.

“We have a problem”

In the fall of 2017, Juan (pronounced ju-on) was a sophomore, enjoying good health while earning high grades and playing football. In his free time, he enjoyed movies with friends and exploring side interests including astronomy and physics. Adults as well as peers appreciated his perennial helpfulness, congenial spontaneity and eagerness to share his faith. Nyaze Christian, a former New Kent football player and wrestler with Juan, is two years older but admits: “If I’m making bad decisions, Juan helps me keep myself straight. He may be like my little brother, but I kind of strive to be more like him.”

During that football season, Juan began feeling somewhat under the weather, but he tried to just power through. Once he started his wrestling season later that year, however, his symptoms worsened to a relentless cough, dizziness, confusion and shortness of breath. In one of Woody’s multiple jobs, at the Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center in Lightfoot, he checks patients in upon their arrival at the emergency department. He’s seen some pretty scary symptoms. And suddenly he was seeing them in his son.

Having already witnessed the decline and eventual death of Juan’s mother from lupus when Juan was 4, Woody wasn’t about to delay in dealing with Juan’s deteriorating health. He drove him to the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters (CHKD) pediatric urgent care center in Newport News, and Juan was sent home with a pneumonia diagnosis and a five-day pack of antibiotics. When the symptoms didn’t resolve, Woody sought guidance from Dr. David Cash, an emergency room physician he knew at Sentara. Cash first advised Woody to wait a few days and let the antibiotics take hold. But seeing Juan’s symptoms only worsen, Woody returned to Cash, who told him to bring Juan into Sentara’s ER for a heart X-ray.

Juan arrived so pale he seemed jaundiced, so fatigued he could barely move, and he’d been unable to keep food down. But the kicker was his heart, which appeared huge and swollen on the X-ray. Cash wasted no words: “We have a problem.”

He diagnosed Juan with viral cardiomyopathy, a rare type of heart failure triggered by any of about a dozen common viruses that inexplicably lodge in and inflame the heart’s main pumping chamber. The condition causes less than 4 percent of all heart failures, most often caused by progressively clogged arteries. It occurs most frequently in healthy young adults without heart problems, and more often in males. Such patients initially experience flu-like symptoms and receive medication to fend off heart failure, but antibiotics can’t cure a virus. So patients either suffer through and improve, or take a turn for the worse. Juan, unfortunately, did the latter.

No New Heart, No Going Home

Woody brought Juan to the main CHKD hospital in Norfolk, and there, Dr. James Gangemi, a pediatric heart surgeon, saw him walking and became concerned. A surgeon in the University of Virginia Health System — he also practices at CHKD through a collaborative arrangement between the two hospitals — Gangemi had heard that Juan was an athlete and was struck by how exhausted he looked. After two weeks of no improvement, Juan was flown via helicopter to UVA, home of the only full-scale pediatric heart transplant program in Virginia.

Right away, Gangemi says, Juan was added to the list of patients awaiting heart transplants. He was given a priority status that meant he wouldn’t be going home without a new heart. UVA’s team of cardiologists and surgeons weighed whether Juan was well enough to wait for a heart, or would need an assistive device to keep him alive. What clinched the decision was his severe abdominal pain; his heart failure was so advanced that his gut could not properly digest food, and he had lost nearly 40 pounds. Gangemi says the team knew Juan might have a long wait —

“It’s not as if hearts are falling out of the sky,” he says.

The doctors’ main goal became keeping oxygenated blood flowing to Juan’s tissues to avoid multiple organ failure as he waited for a new heart. So, on Dec. 29, 2017, Juan received an implanted LVAD (left ventricular assist device) — a battery-operated device that would enable his ailing heart to pump properly. “If he didn’t get that,” Woody remembers, “he was going to die immediately.”

Critically ill before the procedure, Juan remembers little from that time, and Woody says initially afterward he still seemed in a state of shock. Both before the LVAD and during the waiting game that followed, there were times when Juan was unsure he would survive. He could do little but lean hard on his faith. “I had God in my life,” he says. “Why be scared when you have someone who’s going to protect you at all times?”

Woody’s constant presence at Juan’s bedside also brought him strength. “He was there when I was at my lowest,” remembers Juan. “Looking at him when he was strong made me strong, too.”

At last, on Jan. 17, 2018, Juan received the key to his future — a new heart, from a Tennessee teenager who’d been an avid soccer player. Gangemi performed the heart transplant surgery, implanting the new heart and removing Juan’s original one as well as the LVAD. When Juan first woke after the anesthesia wore off, he already felt better than he had before surgery.

Rebounding “like a super hero”

Following his heart transplant surgery, Juan began a daunting program of physical and occupational therapy to regain his strength and stamina. It was clear Juan had “been a beast in the gym” prior to his illness, says Gangemi, who was sure the teenager’s innate positivity would triumph. Juan was already thinking of the coming football season: “I wanted to get right back into it.” Remembering how Juan gained muscle back so fast, Nyaze Christian laughs that his friend seemed “like a super hero!”

Elon Musk SpaceX

Through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Juan and Woody Jones visited SpaceX, the
private aerospace company founded by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Juan got added motivation to get in shape from a few members of UVA’s football team, who came to visit him while he recovered. And he got an inspirational boost from another unexpected source — a private conversation for him and his dad with Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, arranged by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Juan’s strongest memory from their chat? That, according to Musk, beyond riches or intelligence or anything else, a person’s character is paramount.

A Community of Support

During Juan’s months away from school, his teachers made arrangements to help him continue his studies whenever he felt well enough to do so. Meanwhile, the school and surrounding community threw their support behind the popular student athlete and his father, a well-respected and visible fixture at school events.

“Woody never took a ‘why did this happen to us?’ attitude,” but instead showed “tremendous faith and belief,” says Chris Valdrighi, New Kent High’s principal. That faith, and Woody’s devotion to his son, especially inspired the community to rally behind them, Valdrighi says.

Notes Gangemi, who also observed Woody’s paternal dedication: “There are saints who walk around on this earth, and Juan’s dad is a saint.”

The New Kent student body signed a huge banner, Assistant Principal Julie Ellis’s husband organized a “Polar Plunge” fundraiser, and local churches, civic groups and the sheriff’s office all pitched in. Juan’s return to school in late spring of 2018 brought “a big sigh of relief,” Valdrighi remembers. Juan’s speech to all staff at the school division’s Convocation that autumn moved many to tears.

Back on the Field

During Juan’s first season back on the football team, the coaching staff and players were initially concerned about his fitness level, says Coach John Fulks. The staff kept a close eye on his condition, seeing that two-hour practices and entire games were a stretch. Soon, though, “his teammates fully embraced his return,” Fulks recalls, “and Juan was amazingly able to participate and excel in most drills.” While working to regain his endurance, Juan played primarily a back-up role that season as both a defensive and offensive lineman, but this fall Juan has played well in every game, says Fulks, starting on offense in several and also playing defense in each.

Last winter he also rejoined the wrestling team, and Coach Mike Faus describes Juan’s return to school since the transplant as “nothing short of inspirational.”

In the past year, Juan has maintained his health and restored his fitness, and he goes back to UVA twice a month for follow-up checks on his heart. Now, as a high school senior, he’s taking an ambitious schedule of Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment college courses, and he’s applying to UVA, hoping to major in — not surprisingly — biomedical engineering.

Looking back now at how far he’s come, Juan says he’s experienced the true power of the human spirit. “And with God,” he’s quick to add, “you can do anything.”

About the author

Beth Shamaiengar

Beth Shamaiengar is a contributing editor at Health Journal. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and, before joining the Health Journal, became an award-winning writer and editor during 11 years with other publications. She also spent nearly a decade volunteering in PTA leadership roles in local schools, building her skills in marketing, event planning, project management and communicating with a variety of audiences. She also enjoys supporting the arts, writing poetry, and spending time with her husband, two sons, and two cats.

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