By Gary White
Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 10:41 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 1:00 a.m.
GAINESVILLE | Garrett Leopold is now on heart number three.
Leopold is a Mulberry teenager who has been awaiting a second heart transplant since September. He received a new heart Monday during an operation at Shands at the University of Florida.
The operation went extremely well, his mother, Susan Leopold, said by phone Tuesday afternoon.
“(The surgeon) said the heart looked so perfect when he got it in there you could look at that and think it was his very own heart,” she said. “That’s how perfect of a fit it was.”
Leopold said her 16-year-old son went into surgery about 2 p.m. Monday. She said the transplant took about 3½ hours.
By Tuesday afternoon, Leopold said all indications suggested Garrett was recovering well. She said his breathing tube had been removed and his older sister, Molly Leopold, was sitting beside his bed in the pediatric intensive care unit and feeding him ice chips.
“He’s very groggy, but he keeps giving people the thumbs-up,” Leopold said. “It’s just a wonderful miracle to be able to see him looking at us. I’ve been holding his hand all morning. I told the doctor I’m going to soak it up for all it’s worth, having my 16-year-old son ask to hold my hand.”
Garrett Leopold was born with a heart defect and received his first transplant at Shands when he was 12 weeks old. The heart had performed well until last year, when he began experiencing severe fatigue and other symptoms.
Leopold, the subject of a Ledger story published Dec. 22, had been hospitalized in Shands’ long-term pediatric ward since September.
His medical plight has earned the attention of Tim Tebow, the former University of Florida quarterback now with the New York Jets. Leopold has met with Tebow several times, most recently last August in Philadelphia before and after a Jets preseason game against the Eagles.
The Tim Tebow Foundation’s W15H (pronounced “WISH”) program has provided support to the Leopold family. Leopold said members of the foundation have called each week since Garrett entered Shands.
Leopold said her son began predicting to everyone about a month ago that his new heart would arrive March 10. She said as she prepared to leave his hospital room Sunday night he looked at his laptop computer and noted the date with disappointment.
Though the transplant occurred one day later than Garrett projected, his mother said the process began March 10 when the transplant team learned that a donor heart was available.
“We know nothing about the donor and that’s OK; we can still say our prayers for someone,” Leopold said. “We never can say ‘thank you’ enough for such a gift.”
She said the donor heart became available just as her son had taken a turn for the worse. After being stable for nearly six months, on Friday night, Garrett began experiencing prolonged episodes of abnormal heartbeats known as premature ventricular contractions.
His mother said Garrett’s surgeon had made plans to do a cardiac catheterization this week to examine the inside of his heart.
Leopold, who was staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Gainesville, said she received a call about 3 a.m. Monday from a nurse at Shands and assumed at first it was to report he was having another episode of abnormal heartbeats. Instead, Leopold was told a matching donor heart was finally available.
Erich Leopold, Garrett’s father, had returned to Mulberry on Sunday night after a weekend in Gainesville. After learning about the imminent transplant, he promptly made the 2½-hour drive back to Gainesville.
Leopold said Garrett’s four siblings and his grandparents were at Shands to provide support before the teen went into the operating room. She said her son began calling friends during the night to report he was being prepared for a transplant. He told her none of them minded being awakened to learn that news.
Garrett made his first call, she said, to the mother of a boy who had been in the next room at Shands but died earlier this year.
Leopold is well known to the staff at Shands, where he received his first heart transplant. He was treated there at age 5 for Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that sometimes develops after heart transplants. He has visited Shands about every two months in recent years to receive intravenous infusions of a solution that bolsters the immune system.
As Garrett was being prepared Monday to go to the operating room, Leopold said, tearful nurses and other staffers lined up outside his room to give him hugs and good wishes.
“Garrett was practically dancing, he was so excited,” she said. “If he was nervous, he hid it well.”
Dr. Mark Bleiweis, director of the University of Florida Congenital Heart Center, led the transplant team, Leopold said.
As he recovered Tuesday afternoon, Garrett had chest tubes in place and was surrounded by pumps and monitors, his mother said. A nurse was assigned to his room around the clock.
Doctors told the family that if all goes well Garrett could be released in 10 to 14 days, Erich Leopold said. Because the family lives so far from Gainesville, Garrett would probably remain in the area for a while after leaving the hospital, his father said.
The long wait for a matching donor heart had been emotionally difficult for Garrett. In The Ledger’s article in December, he discussed the frustration of being confined to a hospital room far from his friends and connected to an intravenous line and a heart monitor for months.
“Obviously, I have moments where I just lose it,” he said at the time. “Some nights would be such a drag, I was saying, ‘Man, there’s never going to be a time when a heart comes.’ I would get down and depressed. I would want to leave the hospital and forget all this.”
His family tried to ease the boredom and uncertainty. Leopold’s relatives decorated his hospital room with family photos, paintings on the ceiling tiles and other homey touches, including a full-sized Christmas tree.
“During the whole period, it was kind of like Groundhog Day over and over,” Erich Leopold said. “We would get up each day and face the same circumstances. Now, we’ve got a new set of circumstances, and it’s good stuff.”
The bad moments of the agonizing wait melted into happiness Tuesday.
“I think what summed it up was (Tuesday) morning when they took the breathing tube out and he started communicating, ‘Dad, I did it,’ ” Erich Leopold said. “He knew that he had made it through. It was incredibly exciting and emotional.”