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The Long Journey to Heart Transplant

‘An outlier’

Kenney is undeniably athletic — and tenacious. He ran cross-country in high school and college. In his 20s, weary of running, he took up cycling. And in his 40s he became a competitive rower, despite a sudden serious heart condition.

“In my late 20s, I started having arrhythmias, and my arrhythmia actually turned into ventricular tachycardia,” Kenney says. “I'd basically go into a high heart rate and have to be hospitalized.”

For nearly two decades, Kenney’s heart condition was kept in check. There were setbacks and comebacks, including a shocking diagnosis in 2008.

“I was getting my annual physical,” he says. The echocardiogram showed my ejection fraction (percentage of blood pumped out of the ventricles) was greatly diminished, and that really alarmed the doctor. He said, ‘You have heart failure.’ I couldn't believe it.”

Although Kenney was slowing down, he kept moving. His doctor called him “an outlier.” And he was — for a while.

“I was very fortunate through cycling and rowing to maintain my wellness. I even competed in the Head of the Charles in 2012 and again in 2015, but then, I actually started feeling the effects of the heart failure.”

Kenney works as an international forester and director of acquisitions for the Hancock Timber Resource Group.

A bridge to heart transplant

Kenney’s job as an international forester and director of acquisitions for the Hancock Timber Resource Group brought him to Boston in 2016. He, his wife and two boys had been living in Jacksonville, Florida. Massachusetts became home. They had family who lived nearby. Kenney grew up in Rhode Island. And both his sons were attending local colleges.

He settled into a rhythm, a routine that included frequent travel all over the world. His heart continued to worsen.

In early March of 2019, Kenney was referred from another area hospital to the Brigham Health Heart & Vascular Center for its expertise with advanced heart failure and complex cardiac conditions. He was immediately admitted with cardiac failure. His heart was so enlarged it could no longer pump effectively. His only option was a new heart.

“He was supposed to see me in the office as a new consult,” recalled Michael Givertz, MD, medical director of the Heart Transplant and Mechanical Circulatory Support Program at the Brigham. “He became so sick we had to urgently admit him to our service for heart failure management and transplant evaluation.”

The evaluation process to become a heart-transplant candidate shifted into overdrive. Kenney was approved and placed on the transplant waiting list on March 22.

“I knew my old heart was gone,” he says. “I had to do this. Without it, I was going to die.”

To keep Kenney healthy until his donor heart arrived, he had two surgeries to install an intra-aortic balloon pump (IABP) — first in his leg and then a few days later it was moved to his upper chest. “I started immediately feeling better,” he says.

The pump bolstered his circulation and allowed him to get up out of his bed and walk the hospital floor. “The IAPB provided enough circulatory support for Mr. Kenney to walk around the coronary care unit multiple times a day while waiting for a donor heart,” says Givertz. “His strength improved as did his nutrition and overall organ function."

Kenney in the New Hampshire woods 60 days after his heart transplant.

Getting back on the bike

In April, in typical tenacious fashion, Kenney was not wheeled but walked into the transplant operation room to receive his new heart. Eighteen days later, he returned home.

Now, more than six months post heart transplant, he is rejection-free. “Everything is functioning just so well," he says.

Recently, he began rowing again and riding his bike to work, as he did on his first day back. “I’m not struggling, I’m just sort of rolling along mindful that I have a new engine.”

Above all, Kenney expresses gratitude — for his health and for the road ahead.

“I'm a forester. That's my competency. And at the Brigham, theirs is taking care of hearts. That's what they do. That’s what they did for me. I am so grateful."

Learn more about the Brigham Health Heart & Vascular Center.