Heart problem has man in line for transplant

February 01, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Gary Starliper had just left his little brother at his father's house and was walking down Franklin Street with a neighborhood boy last summer when he suddenly lost his sight.

Just a few blocks from his Cannon Street home, Starliper said he had to sit down.

"Everything went black," he said. "I started having chest pains and pains in my arms."

A friend who happened to see him told Starliper he was probably suffering from heartburn and offered him Rolaids. He said he had no history of heart trouble, and at 25, he never considered it could have been something worse.

But the pain persisted and Starliper went to his doctor's office. He was taken to Washington County Hospital, where he spent the night and then was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he spent the next 10 days.


The diagnosis of heart specialists was a medical term that was not part of his vocabulary but one that has altered his life: hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The condition, a disease of the heart muscle, causes the muscle to grow excessively.

Dr. Joshua Hare, Starliper's cardiologist at Johns Hopkins, said that excessive growth can prevent the heart from relaxing properly, weaken the muscle or even cause sudden death.

In Starliper's case, the heart is so weak it cannot adequately support the circulation of blood through his body. And while the chest pains that struck that afternoon in August were not technically a heart attack, Hare said they were a sure sign of something seriously wrong.

"Gary was lucky that he came to medical attention in enough time that he didn't die," he said.

It's not clear why hypertrophic cardiomyopathy presents itself later in life, but Hare said doctors believe it is genetic in most cases. In fact, researchers have been able to isolate the gene that causes the abnormality.

While the condition is hardly a household name, its effects on some prominent athletes are well-known. Hare said about half of all athletes who suddenly die while competing suffer from this ailment.

Although rarely severe enough to require a heart transplant, Hare said recent studies suggest the basic condition is far more common than originally thought, occurring in perhaps as many as one in every 500 people.

Long wait

Doctors at Hopkins inserted a device to monitor Starliper's heart rhythm and an implantable defibrillator, which can automatically shock it back into action it necessary. While Hare said his condition has stabilized, Starliper said his life as been turned upside down the last five months.

He is now on a waiting list for a new heart that is needed to ultimately save his life and he must deal with mounting medical bills that his insurance only partially covers.

Starliper said he also moved into a friend's house on the corner of Locust Street and North Avenue because doctors told him that living alone is not a good idea.

Gary Carter, 32, who met Starliper through work several years ago, said his friend now tires easily.

"We've seen a difference. He was the kind of guy who could function on four hours of sleep," he said. "He can't even go up these 17 steps (now)."

Janet Carter, Gary's mother, said a day's work as a cook at the Western Maryland Hospital now drains Starliper. Aside from the physical exhaustion, he also must deal with the psychological effects, she said

"He gets depressed, stressed out," she said.

Hare said doctors encourage patients to lead as normal a life as possible when waiting for a heart transplant. But with a chronic shortage of organ donors, that wait can be up to a year. And it can be interminable, Starliper said.

"I think about it a lot," he said.

Raising money

So far, Starliper said he has worried more about his medical condition than his financial condition. His insurance company has paid $40,000 of his $46,000 in bills, he said.

But that total is mounting. A heart transplant would require six months of home care that his insurance company will not cover, he said.

Janet Carter and her son have pledged to do everything they can to help Starliper. Janet Carter said she opened a bank account at First National Bank where people can donate money to offset Starliper's medical expenses. The account number is 54241993.

Carter said she also is organizing fund-raisers, selling candy and scented candles. Anyone who wants to help can call her at 301-790-3361, she said.

If Starliper gets a new heart, his odds of recovery are good, Hare said. The one-year survival rate is 85 percent and the five-year rate is 75 percent.

Until then, though, modern medicine has done about all it can, Hare said.

"We keep a very close eye on him. But the transplant is out of our hands," he said. "Some people die while they're waiting."

The Herald-Mail Articles