The new year is a time for new beginnings, and that’s especially true for Reg Thorne.
The 58-year-old St. John’s man will head into 2018 with a new heart and a new outlook on life.
“It’s not like anything I can describe,” Thorne said of his experience while chatting over tea in downtown St. John’s. “It’s like, ‘Holy smokes. Did this really happen?’”
Things are improving for Thorne, but it’s been a long, difficult journey — one that began decades ago.
He was only 25 when he suffered his first heart attack.
While living in Etobicoke, Ont., Thorne awoke one night to severe pain in his chest and back.
“It was like an elephant sitting on your chest. Massive pain,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I was only 25 years old.”
He got up, had a coffee and “just tried to stretch it, figuring it’d go away.”
But it got worse and he became nauseous. His wife at the time called 911.
While sitting and waiting for the ambulance to arrive, he said, he felt, “an impending sense of doom. It’s the only way to describe it. You feel like you’re finished.”
He was shocked to learn from doctors that he had suffered a massive heart attack, caused by a clot. With no history of serious heart disease in his family, doctors said it was likely triggered by high cholesterol.
Later that night, lying in his hospital bed, Thorne said, he died.
“It was the classical description (of dying). You’re in a long tunnel and you’re just floating towards the light. The further I went, the more relaxed I got. All the pressures were lifted off my shoulders and every question you ever had in life was answered,” he said.
“It was so bloody peaceful.”
Thorne said he remembers seeing a woman wearing a 1930s-style dress at the end of the tunnel. She was motioning to him to go back.
Seconds later, he woke up.
A few years later, during a visit home in St. John’s, he spotted the same woman in a photo at his mother’s house and asked her about it. His mother told him it was her grandmother.
“That’s who it was (in the tunnel),” he said. “It was the same woman, right down to the hairstyle.”
It took months for Thorne to recover, but he eventually got back on his feet. He upgraded his education and began work as an electrician.
Things were fine for 10 years. But at age 35, after returning to Newfoundland and while working at the dockyard, he suddenly had trouble breathing. It eventually passed with medication, but not long after, he suffered his second heart attack.
After recovering, he limited his work to smaller electrical jobs.
His health was fine for another seven years, but he once again began experiencing pain.
He had a stent put in his heart, but over the years his heart grew weaker. Thorne grew tired quickly, was short of breath and was retaining fluid.
“I couldn’t walk five steps,” he said.
He went through several pacemakers in an effort to treat ventricular fibrillation, a condition where the heart beats at an abnormal and often erratic rate.
In late 2015, after consulting with Dr. Sean Connors at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s — and after another three near-death episodes — it was determined Thorne needed a heart transplant.
“I was dying,” he said. “To be honest, it all didn’t bother me until it got down to the wire.”
Connors referred Thorne to the Ottawa Heart Institute, where he would go to await a new heart.
Before leaving in March, he sold all his belongings, except for a few antiques.
“I figured I wouldn’t be needing them anymore,” he said.
Once admitted, Thorne soon realized he wasn’t alone. There were at least 15 other Newfoundlanders either waiting for a new heart or recovering from heart transplants.
“We had a Newfoundland club. We met at Tim Hortons every Sunday,” he said, smiling. “Nobody knows just how much of this goes on.”
One of his new friends, who had the same condition as Thorne — a heart functioning at 12 per cent and the same rare blood type — had been waiting 4 ½ years for a heart.
Thorne expected the same. However, after just five months from the time he arrived in Ottawa, on the morning of Aug. 24, Thorne got the call he had been waiting for.
“I was in the kitchen that morning frying an egg for breakfast when the phone rings. It was (a member of) the cardiac team. She asked how I was and we chatted. I thought she was just calling to check on me. Then she says, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ve got a heart for you.’ I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Go on, you’re full of shit,’” said Thorne, who described the short wait time as just the luck of the draw.
“I was pretty excited. I had to try and relax. … There was no time to be scared.”
Members of the medical staff and cardiac team greeted him with hugs.
“I said, ‘Jeez, man, word travels fast around here,’” he recalls, smiling.
Before he went in for surgery, Thorne said, he prayed to God and silently asked his dad — who had died months earlier — to watch over him.
Not long after that, Thorne’s cousin, Jada, came to the hospital and gave him a heart-shaped beach rock for luck. Thorne wanted to take it into surgery with him, but the medical staff told him such objects were not permitted in the operating room. He gave it to a nurse to keep until after the surgery.
However, while he was being wheeled into the OR, Thorne said, he felt something digging into his side. He reached down and found a small pewter angel.
“This is the part that makes me cry,” he said, pausing to fight back tears.
Thorne said he had no idea where it came from, but he held it in his hand.
He woke up six hours later after a successful surgery performed by Dr. Fraser Rubens. The new heart instantly began beating in his body once transplanted — without prompting.
He asked the nurse about the pewter angel, but she didn’t know what he was talking about.
“It was the weirdest thing, but I firmly believe it was Dad,” he said.
Thorne’s father had died in St. John’s from complications from pneumonia while Thorne was in Ottawa. His father had insisted he stay in Ottawa to wait for his new heart.
“I felt him with me,” Thorne said, his eyes welling with tears.
The hospital doesn’t reveal the identity of the heart donor, but doctors told Thorne he had received the heart of a 22-year-old man.
Thorne was up walking around his hospital room just three days after surgery, but it took months of cardiac rehabilitation before he got the OK to leave the hospital.
Thorne decided to return to St. John’s to be close to his mother and sisters.
Sadly, he had a setback two weeks after the surgery, when he suffered a compression fracture in his spine, which happened while medical staff were moving him during a test at the hospital. He suffered two more in the following weeks.
“I haven’t had a chance to exercise the heart (due to the back injuries),” said Thorne, who uses a cane. “They don’t just take a heart out and put a heart in. There’s a long process, and some people think that after six months, you’re hunky-dory. This takes two or three years to get back to normal.”
But being surrounded by family is helping.
When he arrived just a week before Christmas, his sisters greeted him at the airport with hugs and kisses.
“Yes, it’s good to be home,” he said.
For now, Thorne is taking things one day at a time and enjoying time with his family.
He’s looking for an apartment, and although he can’t go back to work, he hopes to start an electrical/plumbing company and hire people to do the work for him.
“All this has made me appreciate life immensely,” said Thorne, who meditates and hopes to get involved in tai chi.
“Every day, it doesn’t matter how much pain I’m in, I’m grateful to be alive.”