I want to be able to use my experience to help people get the treatment and care they need like I did at NewYork-Presbyterian.
Chris Molnar was starting an exciting new phase of his life when everything came to a crashing halt in November 2012. The 19-year-old recent high school graduate was home in New Jersey for a short leave after completing a 13-week Marine Corps Recruit Training in Parris Island, SC, when he suffered a stroke.
“I was over at a friend’s house, and while I was there, in their kitchen, I had a massive stroke,” Chris recalls. “I was taken to my local hospital; they immediately started looking for the reason a seemingly healthy 19-year-old marine would be having a stroke. While they were doing MRI testing on my brain, they found scarring on my brain from a previous stroke.”
Chris’ situation was tenuous. In addition to the multiple strokes, doctors determined his heart was severely weakened. His heart began going into atrial fibrillation (afib)—an irregular, rapid heart rate in the upper chambers of the heart—and then into ventricular tachycardia (v-tach)—fast heart rate in the lower chambers of the heart.
After assessing Chris’ condition, the pediatric specialists at his local hospital determined they were not equipped to continue treating him. But, because of his age and his anatomy, he could not be treated in the adult cardiac unit either. So the doctors sent out a notice to the children’s hospitals in the region with a heart program. NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital was the first to answer the call.
At Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital’s cardiac pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), pediatric cardiologists determined Chris was in end-stage heart failure. His heart had swelled so much that it caused partial collapse of his left lung. The percentage of blood pumped out of his heart was one-fourth of the standard value, and his other organs were significantly damaged because of the enlarged heart and lack of blood supply. Later tests determined Chris had an unknown congenital heart mutation that caused his heart to fail.
“The doctors found my heart was beyond repair and I would need a transplant,” Chris says. As he waited for a new heart, he suffered a third stroke.
In New York City, at any given time more than 300 people need a new heart. To ensure Chris survived while he waited for his new organ, the doctors at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital implanted a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), which is a mechanical pump that is implanted into the chest to help pump blood.
Chris continued to live with the LVAD for four months until he received a call on April 9 that a donor heart was available. Though there were some surgical complications, Chris recovered and was able to return to New Jersey after two weeks.
“After a year at my house recovering, I was cleared for travel. I was immediately transferred to the wounded warrior battalion at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center,” he says.
At Walter Reed, Chris underwent speech and cognitive therapies. He also received mental health counseling before being medically retired from the Marine Corps in 2015.
“Looking back, there were clear signs that I was going into heart failure when I was in boot camp,” Chris states. He recalls getting a chest X-ray during boot camp when he was sick, he was told he had pneumonia. The X-ray also showed his heart was slightly enlarged, though it was dismissed as a common condition found in soldiers. “The doctors at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital were able to say that it wasn’t pneumonia but was the early stages of heart failure. I was able to determine that I had my first stroke, based on what I experienced during my other two strokes, during boot camp.”
Now a student at Mercer County Community College, Chris is using his experience as an organ recipient and cardiac patient to teach others about the benefit of learning about heart health and being an organ donor.
“I’m alive because of the doctors and nurses at NewYork-Presbyterian,” he says. “I want to be able to use my experience to help people get the treatment and care they need like I did at NewYork-Presbyterian.”