Jason Pablo regularly went for five-mile runs, so he was surprised to discover that he was physically struggling while playing golf one day in August 2000.
“I felt like I had run five miles when I was walking 15 yards, at most,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Later that night, he had to sit at the top of the stairs in his home to catch his breath. His wife, who was six months pregnant at the time, became concerned. “She said, ‘You’ve been sitting up there for 10 minutes. Maybe you should go see a doctor,’” he remembers.
Pablo, who was 28 at the time, saw his doctor the next day, and was convinced he was going to be told he had an infection or a cold. “All of the sudden, my doctor was checking my heart and he said, ‘Has anyone told you about your heart murmur?’” Pablo said. He was referred to a cardiologist, and managed to get an appointment the next day.
The cardiologist looked at a chest X-ray Pablo’s doctor had given him, analyzed his blood work and gave him a diagnosis: He had cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for your heart to pump blood to the rest of your body. “The doctor said, ‘There’s a two in three chance that you’re probably going to die from this,’” Pablo says. “I was shocked. I looked at my wife, who had come to the appointment, and her belly. I just thought, ‘Wow, all of this right before I’m about to become a father for the first time.’”
Pablo said his doctor wasn’t sure why he developed his heart condition, but that it may have been caused by a virus. “The cause of me being out of breath and feeling lethargic was my heart was pumping so inefficiently,” he says. “The bottom left portion of the heart had died off and caused the rest of the heart to be working harder.” Pablo’s lungs had also filled with “excess fluid.” He was given medication to help with his symptoms and says that “everything was fine for the next few years.”
But a few years later, the symptoms came back.
“I started feeling kind of weird,” Pablo recalls. “Prior to that, my life was normal. I was running and playing basketball, but all of the sudden, I hit a brick wall.”
He went to see his doctor and discovered he had atrial fibrillation, meaning his heartbeat was irregular. “The next few years were rough and the bad days started to outnumber the good days,” Pablo says. He underwent several procedures to try to correct the irregular heartbeat, but the fixes didn’t last.
During one procedure called a catheter ablation, where a doctor uses a laser through a catheter to create scar tissue to try to fix an irregular heartbeat, Pablo’s doctor accidentally tore a hole in his heart and he ended up needing open-heart surgery while he was still under for the ablation. “I woke up in the intensive care unit and had wires and tubes coming out of me,” Pablo says. He went in for his original procedure on a Tuesday and woke up on a Thursday.
“I was brought into a regular room after a few days and, when I woke up at one point, the nurse looked like she had just been crying,” he says. “She said she had read my file. ‘Jason, you flat-lined five times,’” she said. “I was shocked.” Pablo ended up staying in the hospital for three weeks. “While I was there, the hospital staff would come to see how I was doing. I kept wondering how they knew me, and I was told that the whole hospital stopped for the operation to repair my heart,” he says.
A ‘new normal’ — and a new heart
Life “was never really the same after that,” Pablo says, adding that there was a “new normal” in terms of his physical activity. “I was doing a lot less activity than I used to and I’d even have to take a lot more breaks while walking,” he says.
In August 2008, he was hospitalized again after he says he started feeling “really weird.” Pablo was given an IV drug called dobutamine to help his heart pump blood more efficiently, but within a few days, his doctor recommended that he undergo a heart transplant. “Hearing that changed my world — and gave me hope at the same time,” Pablo says.
“I prepared my mind that I would be sitting in a hospital room for God knows how long, but I only waited six days for a heart to become available,” he says. Pablo received a heart transplant on September 5, 2008, at Stanford Medical Center, and says the recovery was relatively fast. “I was out of ICU within three days and then, eight days later, I was home,” he says.
Now, Pablo says he has a few reminders that he has “someone else’s heart.” He has scars from his surgery, which he calls his “battle scars,” and Pablo says he can’t run as fast as he used to, although he’s not sure if that’s due to his age or his new heart.
Three years ago, Pablo needed to undergo a kidney transplant after the anti-rejection medication he needed to take after his heart transplant took a toll on his kidneys. While he was looking for a transplant, he urged his wife to get tested to see if she was a match. “I said, ‘I know you’re not, but I don’t want you to wonder,’” he recalls. “A few months later, we got a call that said she’s a match.” Pablo says he and his wife were so shocked “we checked family trees to see if anything intersected — it didn’t.” Ultimately, his wife’s kidney “was the perfect match for me,” he says.
Pablo now serves as a mentor at Stanford Medical Center for people who are waiting for heart transplants. “I tell them that it’s a great time to have heart issues because of the therapies that are out there,” he says. While Pablo has been through a lot in life, he still maintains a positive outlook. “I’ve been through my fair share of health issues, but I’m now able to do the things I want to do — and that’s incredible,” he says.