After 13 years of good health, David was suddenly fighting for his life
David Maggiori was three months old when he was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that can affect its ability to pump blood. With medication and regular monitoring, David lived without incident for 13 years. He played low-impact sports and didn’t think much about his condition beyond his regular heart checkups at The Hospital for Sick Children.
“I would get tired quicker — I’d never be a long-distance runner — but I never felt like a sick kid,” he said.
In the summer of 2008, David and his family visited Greece. He went tubing in the ocean and hiked up to Acropolis in 40-degree heat. But that fall, in the first weeks of school, David was home with a terrible cold. Suddenly he was gasping for air whenever he lay down. He had to sleep upright in an armchair or folded over a small table in front of him.
David was in acute heart failure. He’d always been in heart failure, but it had been slow — a gentle decline that had suddenly dropped off a cliff. “That’s when the panic started,” he said. “Suddenly, we were at the hospital, there were tests. Everything was getting tracked — my fluids, my sodium levels.”
A valve in David’s heart was leaky, which meant blood was backing up into his lungs instead of being pushed out by his heart, which was now like a depleted balloon — thin and overstretched. David described his heart as “basically useless.” One night, his blood pressure and heart rate crashed, and he was rushed to SickKids. He remembers the resuscitation team hovering over him.
The first step was surgery to repair David’s leaky valve. The operation worked, but a day later it became clear his frail heart couldn’t handle the pressure of normal blood flow. David started to crash again. His last chance for survival was a heart transplant.
“But I was going downhill very, very fast,” he said. “There was a low chance I would even survive the wait for a donor heart.”
Luckily for David, SickKids had access to an experimental mechanical device that could take over the function of his failing heart while he waited for a transplant. At the time, the device wasn’t yet approved for paediatric use in Canada, though doctors could apply for special access for kids in grave need — like David.
“The doctor pitched the idea to my parents, and five days later I was on the [device],” David recalled.
Today, such ventricular assist devices (VADs) are standard treatment for kids in acute heart failure or awaiting transplant. Every year, roughly five SickKids patients will need one. Since David’s time, VAD design has been tweaked and improved. They’re now smaller and more portable. Kids and teens can survive for up to a year on a VAD.
David wasn’t on it for even a week. Five days later, a donor heart became available, arriving by helicopter on the SickKids roof. Astonishingly, David’s entire hospital experience — the resuscitation, the valve surgery, the mechanical heart, and the transplant — happened over the span of 10 days. Looking back, he remembers so many different doctors coming to see him. He recalls the constant encouragement and how, “end-to-end,” SickKids is built for the unique needs of children.
“There’s a full trust in the expertise of every single person — from the nurse to the doctor to the receptionist,” David said. “Everyone, I mean everyone, is looking out for you.” David was discharged on Halloween, and as he was wheeled out, he remembers seeing staff, even some of the doctors, taping up decorations and sorting treats.
Even now, 13 years later, David is still struck by the humanity of the woman who cleaned his room during those 10 days. “I was not a nice sight, I had so many tubes coming out of me. But she was always so cheerful, asking me how I was, talking to me like she would anyone else,” he said. “I think about that now as an adult, this poor woman seeing all these kids in terrible, terrible shape, and how hard that would be, how easy it would be to not look at the kids or talk to the family. It’s unbelievable.”
Torstar, the Star’s parent company, is in a fundraising and educational partnership with The Hospital for Sick Children to help raise $1.5 billion for new facilities. This content was produced by SickKids as part of that partnership.