August 15, 2002 in City

Youngster got rare gift for his 16th birthday

By The Spokesman-Review
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

Sixteen-year-old Jeremy Cereghino practices his skateboarding moves outside his home Wednesday, for the first time since having a June 14 heart transplant. Jeremy had a virus in his heart which caused his immune system to turn on his own body and try to destroy his healthy heart. He got his new heart two days after his 16th birthday.
(Full-size photo)

How I Spent My Summer Vacation, by Jeremy Cereghino.

Let’s see. I shot some hoops with a friend. Worked on my skateboard moves. Played some computer games …

And, oh yeah, I got a new heart.

Not to put words in the boy’s mouth, but Cereghino’s summer break has the makings for one doozy of a language arts paper.

Or an episode of “ER.”

After all, most kids will head back to class next month with a new outfit or maybe a new notebook.

Then there’s Cereghino, who will begin his junior year at Spokane’s Lewis and Clark High School with the transplanted ticker he received June 14 - just two days after his 16th birthday.

You sure can’t tell by looking. Two months after the surgery that saved him, this teen appears remarkably fit and normal.

Cereghino is a poster child for both the miracles of modern medicine and the importance of donating organs.

If you don’t believe it, just ask him to raise his shirt and show you his scars.

The biggest one, still freshly dark purple, bisects Cereghino’s pale chest from the tip of his breast bone to his navel. Smaller scars indicate where the drain tubes were and where his gall bladder was removed.

“I didn’t want to believe what was happening to me,” Cereghino says of his medical ordeal. “I thought I’d be out of the hospital in a week or two.”

Not quite.

Cereghino was about as sick as it gets. The shocker was that the virus that triggered his immune system to attack his own heart simply came out of the blue.

“He’d never been sick,” says Cereghino’s mom, Teresa Hawkins. “He was just a healthy kid.”

All that changed in mid-March.

The symptoms were so subtle. Cereghino says he felt a stomachache and some fatigue.

At first, says Hawkins, doctors suspected her boy might have a bad appendix. Later, surgeons removed Cereghino’s gall bladder thinking that was the culprit.

“You just don’t look at congestive heart failure in a 15-year-old,” she adds.

Cereghino got sicker. He started vomiting and experiencing shortness of breath.

By late March, he was fighting for his life. His heart and lungs were filling with fluid. You could see his heart’s labored beat from across the room, says Hawkins.

The heroes in this story are easy to find.

They are located in a fifth-floor office on the Sacred Heart Medical Center campus. This is the home of the world-class Northwest Cardiothoracic and Transplant Surgeons.

Started a decade ago by Dr. Tim Icenogle, this team of medical magicians has accrued a phenomenal success rate. One of the key reasons is the team’s use of mechanical heart pumps. The devices keep patients alive while they wait for a transplant.

Cereghino, for example, was fitted with a 3-pound titanium pump that was implanted on top of his stomach. This allowed him to exercise and maintain a level of health during his two-month wait for a heart.

That moment arrived June 14.

“It’s terrible to think about the loss,” says Hawkins. “I’ve written a thank you letter to the donor’s family. All we know is that it was an hour outside of Spokane. A young heart, a very good heart.”

Dr. David Sandler performed the five-hour operation. It went so smoothly that the surgeon was seen joyfully jumping up and down at its conclusion.

“That’s right,” he says, adding that he feels it’s a great privilege to be able to help in such a dramatic way. “These people are normal after transplants,” says Sandler. “This is one of things in medicine that really works.”

Of course, it still ultimately boils down to the availability of organs.

To be blunt, it’s an absolute sin in this day and age for any transplant patient to die for the want of an organ.

It doesn’t have to happen. Especially when all it takes to be part of the solution is to agree to get the words “organ donor” printed on your driver’s license.

Next time you’re asked to make that commitment, think about a young skateboarding computer-lover named Jeremy Cereghino.

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or dougc@spokesman.com.


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