Heart transplant recipient Greg Sabak: 'I thank God for my donor every day'

·8 min read

Jul. 30—Greg Sabak never missed a beat.

Each time he was blared out by a PA announcement at San Diego International Airport, he would simply stop talking into his cell phone.

And, he would wait patiently, until all the over-amplified proclamations were done.

Then, he'd pick up his story, as if he'd never stopped talking.

When two steps on a treadmill turn into a long-haul, slow-motion death sentence—and you live to tell about it—well, you pretty much learn how to ride the chop, he said.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens, " the 61-year-old Westover resident said. "I'm glad I'm able to be out here."

Sabak, a shrewdly observant poker player (more on that) is trying his luck with the cards this weekend in the California city, as part of his membership in a club that just might have the toughest initiation in the world.

To get there, though, he had to take those two steps on the treadmill.

It was Nov. 6, 2000, and he didn't know he was dying.

New job, new move (to an old place)

Sabak, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native who had gone to pharmacy school in Boston, had been hired just days before at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center, in Clarksburg.

While he grew up in the Sunshine State, his family has deep roots in the Mountain State.

The Sabak family came to the U.S. and West Virginia from eastern Europe in the early 20th century to carve their purchase of the American dream in the coal mines.

A great-uncle perished in the Monongah mine disaster of 1907. His grandfather, who also worked there, was spared death by way of religion.

The day the mine exploded, Dec. 6, is also St. Nicholas Day in the Russian Orthodox faith, and Andrew Sabak, who was devout, didn't work that day.

When Greg's father, also named Andrew, found out he was terminally ill, he wanted to leave Florida so he could die back home in north-central West Virginia.

A son followed, so he could care for both his parents. It started out as a temporary move, but his mother decided she wanted to stay.

Sabak, too, found he liked the mountains and small-town life. He settled down in Westover.

He got hired as a pharmacist at the VA and was required to take a stress test as part of a pre-employment physical. That's when everything changed.

Not looking good "I got two steps on the treadmill and collapsed, " he said.

The new hire at a hospital in Clarksburg became a hospital patient in Morgantown.

After all the tests, a white-coated cardiologist came in, unsmiling, with a diagnosis that Sabak didn't like one bit.

It was a mouthful, but Sabak, with his medical background, knew exactly what he was hearing.

Nonischemic idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy.

Heart failure.

Around 1 in 500 people, from adolescents to competitive athletes, are walking around with the condition.

All the mechanics of the body are geared to proper heart function.

The main pumping chamber of Sabak's heart (and everyone's heart), the left ventricle, had become enlarged and weakened.

His heart wasn't beating like it should, which meant it wasn't moving blood like it should.

Sabak's kidneys began retaining water and sodium, and congestive heart failure inevitably followed, since his body could no longer dispense of the fluid that was also building up in legs, ankles, feet and lungs.

At the time of his diagnosis, doctors told him his heart was operating at only 15 % to 25 % of capacity, and those numbers were fading like a Key West sunset.

"The condition doesn't always show up. When you hear those stories where these world-class athletes just drop dead, they had what I had."

His son, Spencer, was 8 months old.

The pulse of the moment Sabak was finally able to go to work at the VA in December 2000, a month after that stress test that he thought was just going to be a physical formality.

Just like his grandfather and his great-uncle with their pick axes working a coal seam, though, the nonischemic idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, that multi-lettered monster, was chipping away at what was left of his heart function.

A defibrillator was implanted, to shock his heart back to beating—when it would just stop.

"You get this thump, and a tingling feeling, " he said.

The jolts became so frequent, they were actually risking his life behind the wheel. He could no longer safely drive.

By May 2014, doctors at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh told him he needed a heart transplant to live.

These days, Morgantown's J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, the flagship facility for WVU Medicine and its network across West Virginia, performs heart transplants for adult cardiac patients.

Sabak appreciates such medical expertise within the confines of the Mountain State.

"It gives West Virginia families hope, " he said. "It's not as daunting."

Meanwhile, he lasted at the VA until December of that year, when his rapidly failing heart forced a retirement and medical disability.

Like his grandfather and great-uncle, however, he displayed an immigrant's tenacity during those 14 years on the job. Grit doesn't show up on an EKG, either.

"You can sit around and worry about your fate, " he said. "Or you can go to work."

'We got you a heart'

Allegheny General put him on the waiting list for a transplant. After two years, he got the phone call.

Sabak was amazed at how ordinary that extraordinary call seemed.

"Hey, Greg. We got you a heart. We're gonna need you here tomorrow."

"Uh, sure."

Sabak underwent the six-hour surgery that following morning. It was July 24, 2016.

He was 55 years old, but his cardiac odometer was reset: "My second birthday."

Lovingly loopy When Spencer came to see him, he was a fashion critic.

"I had just gotten glasses, " remembered Spencer, who was 18 at the time and attending Pierpont Community and Technical College in Fairmont.

"He was still loopy from the anesthesia, and he looked at me and said, 'Those frames look awful on your face. I wouldn't wear 'em.' I laughed and said, 'I love you too, Dad.'"

When he got old enough to get a driver's license, and to start filling out other official forms and paperwork, Spencer registered as an organ donor.

Visit Donate Life America at https://www.donatelife.net / for more information on how you can do the same.

The beat goes on Because someone else signed an organ donor card, the Sabak father and son received something most of us take for granted.

Time.

Time to play golf and go skiing. That's what they do.

Time for Spencer to map out his life, with his proud dad there to see it.

Spencer, who is now 22 and about to be married, works as a lineman for a utility company, wrangling electrical charges not unlike the ones that kept his pop going in those early days of his diagnosis.

"He's a good kid, " Greg said. "He's already bought a house. He's doing everything the right way."

Ace of Hearts Sabak knows his heart came from a younger person.

Like his grandfather before him, his faith moves the heart of who he is now in everything he does.

"Every day I thank God and my donor, " he said. "Every day."

This weekend in San Diego, he's competing in Transplant Games of America, joining some 2, 000 people, who, like him, all sport the long surgical scars as their ticket for admission.

After the coronavirus wrote the prescription that canceled the games for the past two years, the contests are back.

Sabak is a veteran competitor and once took home a gold medal in Texas Hold 'em Poker, which he credits in part to his medical training.

That's because while some card players are great at keeping a poker face, not a one can bluff biology.

Blame it on the carotid artery, he said, chuckling. That's the vein on the side of your neck with a pulse that is sometimes visible.

"Watch for the pulse, " he said.

"If it's thumping, that means the guy has got something."

Sounding the soul The 2018 Transplant Games took him to Utah and Salt Lake City, where he got something that made his heart swell.

By chance, he met a husband and wife from Wheeling whose daughter had died. Her signature on a donor card gave gratitude to their grief.

They were able to meet the person walking around with her transplanted heart.

That person brought a stethoscope—and a mom and dad listened to a message.

"They got to hear that beating heart. That's their daughter. Their kid. It was like she was still here."

Because, he said, she is.

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