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A gift of life

Michael Watkins, one of approximately 10 Bahamians with either kidney, heart or liver transplants walking around, according to Ministry of Health
  • Michael Watkins, 61, at his birthday in February. He has much to smile about after a successful heart transplant in December 2016. Watkins returned home three weeks ago from Florida where he had heart transplant surgery. PHOTOS: MICHAEL WATKINS

  • Michael Watkins takes his stress tests.

  • Michael Watkins in hospital as he awaits a heart.

  • When out and about in public, where he will have to encounter a lot of people, Michael Watkins wears a face mask to protect his still weak immune system, which will take about a year to regain full strength.

Guardian Lifestyles Editor

Published: Jul 11, 2017

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Anthony Michael Watkins has been given not one, not two, but a third chance at life really. And he does not take it for granted. He says his life is precious to him.

Six months ago, Watkins, 61, underwent heart transplant surgery after his own organ gave out on him. For years he drank, smoked, ate the wrong foods, and, like many people, easily logged 12 to 15 hour days at his job. All of that resulted in Watkins having quadruple bypass surgery 15 years ago after suffering three heart attacks in a six-hour span. He was 46-years-old at the time. The attacks damaged the left side of his heart and his doctor told him it would eventually deteriorate. It did.

In 2008 Watkins had a defibrillator (which uses electrical shocks to restore a normal heartbeat) implanted. It was a miracle device for him as it saved his life a number of times after his heart stopped. Despite the implant, his heart continued on a “downward spiral”.

Personal issues raised their heads in his life in 2013 and he said that placed extra strain on his damaged heart, that he said at the time was only functioning at about 10 percent of its capacity. A heart transplant or LVAD (left ventricular assist device) were his only options.

Watkins sought medical care at Florida’s Cleveland Clinic in 2015. To make himself available to receive a heart transplant if one became available, he had to live within 10 to 15 minutes of the hospital. He was also in a predicament as he was 120th on the organ donation list and deteriorating.

In September 2016 Watkins’ heart gave out.

Doctors implanted the LVAD to assist his weakened heart — 10 days later his body rejected the device and he had severe internal bleeding.

In November he was informed that he could not receive any more blood as he had reached his limit. He had been receiving five to six units per day. He needed a heart transplant or his body would start to shut down. He was elevated on the transplant list. Three days later, a heart was found for him.

Watkins had heart transplant surgery on December 4, 2016.

He does not know from whom his heart came. All he knows is that the person was young and had died in a car wreck in Florida.

“They don’t tell you the donor. But one thing they did when they were counseling me was that they didn’t want me to feel guilty that someone had to die for me to live. She [the doctor] said it was the choice of the other person and to consider it a gift of life, because they were kind enough to donate their organs so that somebody else could live. It’s sad that they had to die, but like they said, it’s nothing to do with me.”

Watkins is now one of approximately 10 Bahamians with either kidney or heart or liver transplants walking around, according to Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands who is also a cardiologist.

The health minister said each brain dead cadaver could potentially donate a kidney to two people, a liver, a heart, and maybe both lungs as well as both corneas, and sometimes bone and skin — which could add up to helping almost 10 people in their battles with their health challenges.

Dr. Sands said Bahamians like Watkins are unique in terms of being able to have access to cadaveric organs through the country’s relationship with the University of Miami and their UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing) system.

“Almost 20 years ago, then coroner Winston Saunders convened a session of the Coroner’s Court to establish the precedence for harvesting of organs in The Bahamas. We had established a relationship with the University of Miami and their UNOS system. We were participating in a non-regulated way. We (me, Robin Roberts, Adrian Sawyer and a few other people) got the subpoenas to go to court to explain how we were taking his organs. He supported organ harvesting and donation, and he wanted to make sure that the legal precedence was established,” said Dr. Sands.

That pivotal case then led to formalizing the relationship with UNOS and the University of Miami, such that they then on a more regular basis would fly into Nassau, harvest organs (typically at Doctors Hospital), then take the organs out of country, and that allowed Bahamians to both contribute and participate in organ sharing, and so it meant that Bahamians had virtually the same right or privilege of getting kidneys, livers, hearts, or corneas as any other person.

Dr. Sands said over the years a number of Bahamians have received kidney transplants because of the country’s participation in UNOS.

“When you start looking at the options for saving lives, a number of Bahamians have contributed to UNOS over the years and that has made it possible for Bahamians to have access to care that many other people in the world don’t have. Because Bahamians contribute to the bank, they can withdraw from the bank,” said the doctor.

The health minister said he gives Saunders the bulk of the credit when it comes to the establishment of organ donation and harvesting in The Bahamas, as he said Saunders established the legal framework, even though people like himself as well as doctors Robin Roberts and Adrian Sawyer, and nurses from Doctors Hospital, including Dorcena Nixon, played a part in the process.

Twenty-four days after Watkins’ heart transplant surgery he was released from hospital, but remained in Florida for five months for his medical team to manage his immunosuppression and to do his cardiac biopsies. He returned home three weeks ago.

His life, he says, is precious to him and he takes it seriously.

He didn’t think of it that way after a motorcycle accident 30 years ago left him without sight in his left eye and the loss of hearing in his left ear as well as without his bottom row of teeth which are all implants. He also didn’t realize how precious it was after his appendix ruptured a few years back and still didn’t quite get the value of his heart attack 15 years ago.

Today he says he does.

“I have a new outlook on life. My life right now is committed to God. When God has given you grace so many times, then you have to heed and you have to obey,” he said.

To gain this new lease on life, Watkins said his new heart cost him approximately $1.8 million to date, inclusive of insurance and out-of-pocket payments. His bills were so staggering, his medical insurance was exhausted as far as coverage for his heart.

And his monthly medical bills are astounding. Just one in the arsenal of medications he takes costs $4,000 a month and that doesn’t take into account other medications — rejection pills and insulin which he had to take daily to counteract the effects of the medications he takes on his sugar levels.

Having to have a heart transplant meant Watkins had to be subjected to a battery of tests before he was eligible to receive a heart. A heavy smoker for years, he said he was more afraid of the results he was to receive for his lungs and a possible cancer diagnosis. He was shocked to learn his lungs were in good shape.

With his new, and relatively younger, heart he said his body is in good shape and his doctors have told him that he could live another 30 to 35 years.

He has changed his diet completely. He removed sugar and starches from his diet (rice, pastas and bread), and no longer consumes certain shellfish; and he doesn’t eat chicken or pork. His diet consists of turkey and if he has meat it’s organic beef or lamb. He also does not drink and he does not smoke, both of which he stopped doing after his heart attack.

“I try to live my life as clean and pure as possible,” said Watkins.

Prior to returning home from Florida, Watkins said he walked three to five miles a day, and when he took his bicycle out, he easily rode 15 to 20 miles.

He sticks to the regiment his doctors planned out for him and does scheduled biopsies (each one costs $7,500 and he has to pay out of pocket) to ensure his body continues to accept his new heart. His marker is one year for his DNA to sync with his new heart, and he can be weaned off medications.

When out and about in public where he will have to encounter a lot of people, he wears a facemask to protect his still weak immune system, which will take about a year to regain full strength.

Mentally and physically he’s going through changes, but he says he doesn’t worry about anything. He doesn’t take on stress.

“I don’t hurt my head about anything. I leave it all to God, because I’ve been to hell and back,” said Watkins.

Because of his firsthand experience with the expense of getting a new heart and after, thankfully he had insurance, but it is still costing him out of pocket, Watkins said he would like to start an organization of foundation to assist transplant patients, if only with medication and living accommodations and family travel. He believes he’s one of the lucky ones, and he knows that most people aren’t as fortunate as he is.

“The thing to do is to avoid having to have any kind of issues with your body — any kind of medical condition with your body — so eat healthy, eat right. When you don’t do what you know what’s right, you pay the price later, and it’s a heavy price to pay. And it’s not easy getting a heart. I got one through the grace of God. Some people died waiting on a heart.”

“We take so much for granted in life and put emphasis and priority on the wrong things. Life was meant to be simple.”

During the months on end that he spent bedridden he said he studied the Bible. He says is aim is to now serve God in truth and obedience.

He also thanks the people that became his support system as his heart failed including his niece Shanika Griffin and friends Mickey Turner, Oris Symonette and his wife Shanell, Marsha Williams and family, his fiancée Cleta Roberts who he said took over running his business, Tony’s Unique Landscaping and Maintenance, and ensured his bills were paid, and his doctors, Dr. Duane Sands and Dr. Dean Tseretopoulos.

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Last Updated on Monday, 17 July 2017 15:40

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