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updated: 7/24/2011 4:12 PM

Bartlett man in triathlon after heart transplant

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  • Rick Majewski/rmajewski@dailyherald.com Kevin Lue's and his wife Maureen Lue's on their front porch in Bartlett. They met through their passion for running, which both of them still do even after Kevin's heart transplant surgery two years ago.  Friday July 1, 2011

      Rick Majewski/rmajewski@dailyherald.com Kevin Lue's and his wife Maureen Lue's on their front porch in Bartlett. They met through their passion for running, which both of them still do even after Kevin's heart transplant surgery two years ago. Friday July 1, 2011

  • Rick Majewski/rmajewski@dailyherald.comKevin Lue, an endurance athlete, project manager for IBM and as of July 11, 2009 a heart transplant recipient. Still runs in marathons. A year after his surgery he ran in a 5 mile race at a 13 minute pace. July 1, 2011.

      Rick Majewski/rmajewski@dailyherald.comKevin Lue, an endurance athlete, project manager for IBM and as of July 11, 2009 a heart transplant recipient. Still runs in marathons. A year after his surgery he ran in a 5 mile race at a 13 minute pace. July 1, 2011.

  • Kevin Lue, of Bartlett, sits with his VAD, a ventricular assist device, which pumped his ailing heart.

      Kevin Lue, of Bartlett, sits with his VAD, a ventricular assist device, which pumped his ailing heart.

  • Kevin and Maureen Lue continue their active lifestyles, even after Kevin's heart transplant. Here they are the day of the Twin Lakes Triathalon in Palatine.

      Kevin and Maureen Lue continue their active lifestyles, even after Kevin's heart transplant. Here they are the day of the Twin Lakes Triathalon in Palatine.

  • Bartlett's Kevin Lue recovers the day after his heart tranplant with the support of his wife, Maureen. The couple found out a heart was available the day after their wedding.

      Bartlett's Kevin Lue recovers the day after his heart tranplant with the support of his wife, Maureen. The couple found out a heart was available the day after their wedding.

  • Rick Majewski/rmajewski@dailyherald.comTwo years after his heart transplant and seven pacemaker Kevin Lue's of Bartlett still runs in marathons. He attributes his recovery to the support from his wife Maureen. "She's been a rock, I don't know where I'd be." July 1, 2011

      Rick Majewski/rmajewski@dailyherald.comTwo years after his heart transplant and seven pacemaker Kevin Lue's of Bartlett still runs in marathons. He attributes his recovery to the support from his wife Maureen. "She's been a rock, I don't know where I'd be." July 1, 2011

  • Bartlett's Kevin Lue underwent a heart transplant, but still runs triathalons. Here he presents his first medal post transplant to Mayo Clinic Dr. Farris Timimi.

      Bartlett's Kevin Lue underwent a heart transplant, but still runs triathalons. Here he presents his first medal post transplant to Mayo Clinic Dr. Farris Timimi.

  • Kevin and Maureen Lue competed in the U.S. Transplant games, which brings together athletes who have benefitted from organ donation.

      Kevin and Maureen Lue competed in the U.S. Transplant games, which brings together athletes who have benefitted from organ donation.

  • Mayo Clinic doctors in Minnesota took this x-ray of Kevin Lue after the Bartlett man collaposed while running. The image on the right shows Lue's ventricular assist device.

      Mayo Clinic doctors in Minnesota took this x-ray of Kevin Lue after the Bartlett man collaposed while running. The image on the right shows Lue's ventricular assist device.

 
 

The dial on his pacemaker cranks up to 165 beats per minute, but that's not enough for triathlete Kevin Lue.

"He's focused, he's committed," says Mayo Clinic cardiologist Dr. Farris Timimi.

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Timimi talks about a special T-shirt his patient wears during triathlons and other races. It simply reads: "Powered by a Donated Heart."

The two have a special patient-doctor bond that began when Lue's March 2009 trip to the esteemed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota revealed the 51-year-old Bartlett man needed a heart transplant.

But it's another relationship that Timimi credits with helping Lue survive a rare heart disease, giant cell myocarditis, that kills 70 percent of those diagnosed within three months.

"He told us not to Google it," Lue's wife, Maureen, recalls.

A calming and loving presence during his wait for the heart came from Maureen, a nurse at Elgin Area Unit School District 46.

"She just supported him and took care of him," Timimi said, recalling the weeks Maureen Lue spent away from her job, living at special lodging near the Mayo Clinic.

Lue puts their relationship into perspective.

"She's been a rock. I really don't know what I would have done. She's the one who kind of convinced me to go to Mayo to begin with," Lue said, getting misty-eyed. "Things just were not getting better here. ... She never left my side for eight days."

Last week marked two years since Lue received his heart transplant, and he continues to compete in triathlons and runs. He shows off the scar from the surgery, which stretches from his chest to his six-pack stomach.

"Forty more years (Timimi) says, 50 more years out of this heart," Lue said.

"That's the goal," his wife added, finishing her husband's thought.

Last year's U.S. Transplant Games in Madison, Wis., was the first time post-transplant that Lue ran a 5K without walking or stopping. He ran at a 13-minute-per-mile clip.

"OK, I can't go any faster than this, even though I probably could, but I can't go any faster than this, because something will happen, my legs will fall asleep, I'll get dizzy," Lue said. "The heart just wasn't keeping up with what my brain thought my body was capable of."

For an athlete who typically goes for 20- to 25-mile runs, the minimum pacemaker settings aren't good enough for Lue. So he asked pacemaker specialists at Mayo to increase the device's capacity.

Lue is not putting himself in danger by running, Timimi said, as he's built up his endurance and doesn't expect to return to the same level he reached before his transplant.

"If someone went out to run a marathon right away, that would be problematic," Timimi said.

Lue's interest in endurance sports came later in life. He's a member of the Elgin Blue Wave Swim Team and the Prairie Dogs Multisport Club run by the Hoffman Estates Park District. That's how he met his wife.

The couple married July 10, 2009, while on another trip to Mayo. Before leaving, Lue suggested to his future wife that they pack some fancy clothes, just in case. They had a small ceremony, much to the chagrin of their families.

Luck struck the following day. Mayo called the couple to tell them a suitable heart was on its way and that Lue should prep for transplant surgery, which he underwent the night of July 11, 2009.

"It was the best wedding gift that they could get," Timimi said.

The couple carefully follows doctors' instructions. That means waking up and taking medications every eight hours. They tote hand sanitizer everywhere and cleanse their palms before a meal at a restaurant.

Lue competed last month in the Twin Lakes Triathlon in Palatine, but in truth it's difficult to find a triathlon where he can compete. The body of water used for the swimming portion must be clean enough from bacteria to prevent difficulties for Lue's transplant.

'My heart just failed'

Lue's ailment came on suddenly. A run near his Bartlett home in December 2008 first showed him something was wrong. The couple regularly ran at the same time, though not together, as Lue ran at a quicker pace (the transplant has slowed him down, and now their paces are similar).

Lue remembers falling to the ground as a motorist passed by. The passer-by offered Lue a ride home. Things never improved, and Lue passed out again. His doctors remained perplexed.

A typical giant cell myocarditis patient is about 42 years old, with chest pain, irregular heart beat and heart failure. Lue, despite being older than average, suffered from all those symptoms.

One suffering from the disease can experience shortness of breath over a period of two weeks, and the next week could suffer cardiac arrest. Without a transplant within eight to 10 weeks, heart failure and death can occur.

Different patients have the disease at various degrees, but Lue's level of physical fitness gave him three months that other patients with his symptoms typically don't have.

Still, his heart failed badly. A ventricular-assist device, a 60-pound machine Lue wore around his waist, was the only thing keeping him alive at one point. Each battery would last 46 hours.

"My heart had failed. It wasn't doing anything. It was just a big vessel, and the VAD was just doing all the work," Lue said.

Timimi credited Lue's "physiological reserve" as a reason he isn't dead.

Lue's insurance covered his health care, though he routinely goes over the deductible limit with prescription medicines alone. He's a project manager at IBM and said his company supported him during his health scare.

Lue knows how lucky he was to be admitted to Mayo, where they found Timimi along with some of the world's best medical resources.

"It saved my life," he said.

Lue doesn't know much about his donor. He and his wife have written letters that were presumably delivered to the donor family by LifeSource, but haven't received any response.

"If it's their wish not to speak or talk about it, we respect that," Lue said.

Now healthier, Lue is speaking to various community groups about ensuring people sign up to be organ donors.

"Right now our goal is to get as many people as we can possibly get," Lue said.

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