Morning came two weeks later. Erik woke up to nearly twenty tubes coming out of his chest and torso and a loud, cumbersome artificial heart keeping him alive.
What Erik didn’t know was that his heart had inexplicably enlarged to nearly twice the normal size and he would have likely died had his mother, Alejandra, not known something was severely wrong. She insisted on taking him to Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee instead of sleeping it off. He was put into a medically induced coma and after a short overnight stay was taken, by helicopter, to Harbor View in Seattle, Washington for specialized care.
On Thursday, November 17th 2016, Erik underwent his first surgery to receive an artificial heart that would keep him alive until a suitable heart could be found for him. One of the scariest things in his life was waking up, without a heart, without recollection of the passing of days, and without a clue what would happen next. Though the artificial heart kept him alive, it wasn’t even close to an ideal situation. Erik was exhausted and couldn’t walk or stand without assistance. The first time medical staff had him on his feet, he fainted. The pain was unbelievable and the young man who once fished on commercial boats, and ran up fourteen foot warped walls could do nothing but lay down and languish and pray for a new heart.
The wait would take months and in that time Erik went from a fit, thin framed one hundred sixty-five pounds to a shell of himself at one hundred twenty-five pounds. He couldn’t eat or drink; any attempt on his part was met with an inability to process the food. His medical staff told him, had he not been in such good shape, because of his size and the severity of his situation he likely wouldn’t have survived.
While Erik fought for his life, with his mother faithfully by his side, his community fought for him the only way they knew how. His home gym, CrosSport, hosted a silent auction in December to raise funds to help with his medical expenses. The effort, spearheaded by Erik’s friends, Missy Scott, Denise Ferguson and David Parades, was able to raise over $4,000. Gym and community members like Jim Heinlein and Chris Mann reached out and were able to bring in some high ticket items like a signed Seahawks football. Later, in January, Erik’s brother, Ivan Rodriguez, organized a fundraiser through Dutch Bros. Owners Jimmy and Danielle Crocker donated a portion of the day’s proceeds and in one incredible day, the community came out in droves to buy their coffee and support Erik’s surgery and raised over $15,000. The estimated costs of his heart transplant are well over what’s already come in and the family still has an online donation site opened for friends and supporters to donate to Erik’s medical expenses. https://www.youcaring.com/alejandrarodriguez-691136
Despite the support the odds were stacked against Erik. Only one in three hearts donated are eligible for transplant. In 2015 alone, ninety-four people in Washington died while waiting for a heart. But no one gave up. Prayers ascended to God from family (Erik says his mom prayed every day), friends and even the medical staff. He decided to be part of a clinical trial to receive a donated “heart in a box” which keeps the heart warm and beating during transport instead of iced in a cooler. Without the four hour restriction associated with hearts in coolers, the chances of getting a heart from further away were better.
The prayers were finally answered and on January 27th Erik got word there was a heart available. He was once again prepped for surgery but this time when he woke up a week later everything was different. With the new heart came a new energy level, Erik was up and walking, under medical supervision right away. Because the heart was slightly large for him he had to have his chest open for about eight days and have his ribs cracked to fit it in but he says there’s no comparison to the artificial heart. A real heart offered freedom and restoration; the loud noise and burden of carrying the artificial heart around is gone, the tubes that had been protruding from his chest and abdomen came out, one by one, and the breathing and feeding tubes were removed. He only has one drain tube leftover from the artificial heart and that should come out in due time as well.
Now Erik appreciates the life and heart he was given more than ever and is working on a new normal. He is staying in a “transplant house” near the hospital since his discharge on February 17th but hopes to be home in four more months. He’s really looking forward to coming back to the valley and most of all to his dogs who he Facetimes with regularly. Though a full recovery is anticipated within a year, at this time Erik is working on gaining back the weight he lost and appreciating the little things in life, like taking showers and getting outside in the fresh air. The regimen of forty-nine pills he currently takes will taper with time but Erik will always have to be on the anti-rejection drugs and avoid certain foods that can counter them. Despite the changes, doctors have told Erik he’ll be able to do all of the activities he once enjoyed including hiking, fishing and working out. After a year he can decide if he wants to make contact with the family of the person who donated the heart through a registry system. He isn’t sure about that yet, but the new, gifted heart has given Erik a sense of responsibility to the person who donated it and to himself to be more conscious of how he takes care of his body.
Every day is a gift and everyone, especially his mom, who has supported and stood by him has been a blessing in his life. Erik want’s to extend his utmost gratefulness to God above and to everyone who has prayed, visited and supported him through this. Luckily for Erik, life will go on and he won’t take it for granted but with gratitude for the second chance he’s been given.
There are a couple ways you can help with Erik’s medical expenses:
Donate directly at Erik's You Caring Site
Purchase Catching Tatum and a portion of all proceeds will be donated to Erik’s medical expenses.