by Marlys Kruger
While observing Josh Bergeron, the personal trainer for the Anytime Fitness Center in Colfax the past three years, you would never suspect he is working with someone else’s heart in his chest. That heart came from a necessary transplant and allowed him to compete in the Transplant Games of America, which took place July 11-15 in Houston, Texas.
Bergeron, age 30 and a native of Chippewa Falls now living in Eau Claire, was born with a congenital heart block which could have been caused by his mother having Lupus, a disease that affects the immune system, according to his doctors. When he was just 22 months old, he had a pacemaker put in to regulate his heart beat and that allowed him to lead a somewhat normal life until his mid-teens.
“I tried to play sports like basketball, football and track but I tired very quickly and I was always the smallest kid on the team,” he said. “It wasn’t until college that I grew several inches and became a better athlete.”
At age 13, Bergeron went in for a routine pacemaker replacement and his health seemed to be okay for the next year. But during a tryout for basketball at Chippewa Falls High School, the coach noticed he looked winded and very pale and suggested he get to a doctor. He also had a sharp pain in his side and when his parents took him to a local clinic, it was discovered from body scans he had fluid built up on his liver and lungs. He was sent to Marshfield for more tests and was told he was going through heart failure, probably because his heart had been so dependent on the pacemaker for so many years that it wasn’t working anymore.
After being told he would need a heart transplant anywhere within three months to three years, he chose to go through the system at Abbot-Northwestern Hospital in the Twin Cities. He would spend one week there, then go home for a week or two, go back to the hospital again, and finally had to stay right there because he needed IVs to keep his heart working. After six weeks in the hospital from late February to April of 1999, he received good news.
“It was the night before Easter Sunday,” Bergeron said. “I was starving and waiting for my hospital lunch to come, and because it was Easter, they brought me a ham dinner. I wasn’t allowed to eat it because of the high sodium in it, so I waited for another meal. They goofed up again and sent another ham dinner. The doctor happened to come in and asked if I had eaten any of it and I said no but I was about ready to. He said that was good, because they had a heart available and if I had eaten any of that they couldn’t do the transplant.”
He had the transplant the next day and was home within a week.
“I was very lucky because I met a few people in the hospital who had been there more than a year waiting for a heart,” he said.
Although he had to wear a mask anywhere outside for the first three months after the transplant and was very weak and tired, he soon became healthy and was able to participate in physical activities again. He had to take up to 40 anti-rejection drugs a day for a while but now takes just eight pills in the morning and eight at night.
Bergeron learned about the Transplant games several years ago and competed a few times, then took the last couple of years off due to some other health problems.
“After a routine heart test, I came down with an infection,” he said. “Then the medications caused gallstones and I had to have my gall bladder removed. Then a random hole in my lung was discovered and I had to have chest tubes put in. But I was finally feeling good again so I decided to go down to the games this year,” he added.
The USA Transplant Games are for anyone who has had a heart, kidney, liver, lung, pancreas or bone marrow transplant. This year a division for living donors was added. Bergeron competed in the track and field events and won a gold medal in the long jump, a bronze in the 100 m dash, a fourth in the shot put and also attempted the high jump and 4 X 100 relay in the age 18-29 bracket. (He was 29 at the time).
“It really isn’t about winning, but supporting others who have been through a transplant,” he said. “If you get a medal, it’s great but meeting others who can participate in events they normally couldn’t do is really exciting.”
Bergeron understands in his case someone had to die for him to receive his heart. For him, it was a 29 year old male from St. Paul who had a brain tumor and did not make it through surgery. He has met the donor’s sister and has been in contact through social media with other members of his family.
“If there is anything my story can do, it is to get the message across about the importance of being a donor,” he said. “I was basically given a death sentence when I was 14 years old and now I am living a healthy and normal life. Transplants, either by a living donor or someone who dies, make it possible for thousands of other people to live,” he concluded.