21-year-old survives, thrives after COVID-19-era heart transplant

Local News

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — We’ve all faced challenges as we made our way through the pandemic. But imagine what it was like for a 21-year-old with a failing heart that needed to be replaced.

Garrett Finkbeiner doesn’t have to image the scenario — He lived it.

His is a story of beating the odds, even when the decks were stacked beyond what anyone had ever experienced.

“You can’t look days and days ahead. You’ve got to take it step by step by step,” Finkbeiner said.

For the Central Michigan University student studying sports management, it began with stomach problems in the fall of 2019.

Months passed, the problems got worse and specialists got involved.

Then came the devastating diagnosis in March of 2020. Tests revealed Garret suffered from a dangerously enlarged heart.

“I was naive at first, too,” Finkbeiner said. “I didn’t understand the full enormity of what was going on.”

Finkbeiner’s heart was functioning at just 10%. Doctors believe a non-COVID-19 viral infection caused the condition. 

For months, different treatment options were tried. But Finkbeiner’s condition worsened.

“Not too long after that, I ended up having an emergency balloon pump. And that’s kind of when it all hit the fan,” Finkbeiner said.

The pandemic played a factor in Finkbeiner’s experience.

With visitor restrictions in place, Finkbeiner’s parents, who’d driven to Grand Rapids from their home in Marquette, spent days parked outside the hospital looking up to his room. 

Their only communication with their son and his doctors was through video calls.

The challenges of not having his mom and dad by his side went beyond the emotional. 

“The terminology and everything, I was just way over my head. And I’m trying to relay those messages. It was just every complicated,” Finkbeiner said. 

Then came news the treatments weren’t working. The only hope was for a transplant.

Heart transplants are a risky procedure to begin with. But the pandemic, which had brought Michigan to a standstill in the spring of 2020, made the procedures more difficult.  

“How can we ensure that an organ donor has been tested and hasn’t been exposed to COVID? How can we keep our organ transplant patient safe because they’re going to be on strong doses of immune suppression medications?” Spectrum Health Cardiologist Dr. David Fermin said.

By then, Finkbeiner’s condition called for bending of the rules.

His parents were allowed to be with their son, but just one at a time.

Originally turned down as a transplant candidate, Finkbeiner’s condition deteriorated further and he made it on the list.

On June 7 of last year, Finkbeiner received his new heart. One year later, he’s back to school and living on his own.  

“He was just so resilient and inspiring to watch. Really, he was a warrior throughout that whole thing,” Fermin said.

And Finkbeiner changed his outlook on life. He says he’s more empathetic and sympathetic to people and less quick to judge others.

Along with promoting organ donations he plans to create a nonprofit to help transplant patients’ families with costs not covered by insurance. 

“So, they don’t have to worry about that,” Finkbeiner said. “They can just worry about the transplant, their son, daughter, husband, wife, whoever it is.”

Anyone seeking to become an organ donor can visit the Gift of Life’s website.

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