When Tim Gay was born, it became immediately evident that something was wrong. He was blue. Within minutes the doctors whisked him away for his first heart surgery, one of many over the years.
“I had transposition of the great vessels. My aorta and pulmonary arteries were switched,” the aspiring medical student explained, describing how the blood circulating between his heart and lungs wasn’t mixing with the blood circulating between his heart and body. His body wasn’t getting the oxygen it needed for him to survive. That’s why he was blue.
Now 24, the recent Washington State University graduate is applying to medical schools around the country while working as a phlebotomist for the lab at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, the hospital where he’s spent countless hours as a patient.
“Sacred Heart has been my home forever,” he said. “I’ve been a patient there my whole life.”
After that initial surgery upon birth, Gay had open heart surgery when he was 1. But for the next several years, you’d never know he had congenital heart disease.
“I felt normal,” he said. “My heart was stable until fourth grade.”
The youngest of five in an athletic family, Gay was active, playing soccer and basketball throughout elementary school. Then his heart rate became too low and he had another surgery, to put in a pacemaker.
The following year Gay was playing basketball with his YMCA team when a timeout was called. He remembers walking toward the sideline, then being wheeled out of the gym on a stretcher. He’d gone into cardiac arrest.
“I woke up in the ER at Sacred Heart,” he said, describing how he went to Seattle to get a defibrillator that would shock his heart back into rhythm if he arrested again.
“At that point, they said you won’t be playing sports,” he recalled. “I got put on exercise restriction.” That was the same day Michael Jordan held a press conference to announce his retirement from professional basketball. It became a longstanding joke that Gay retired with Jordan.
Recounting the experience, he smiled and shrugged. “I would joke around about it. I don’t view my heart condition as a negative. Sure, it’s scary sometimes, but it’s made me who I am today. It’s given me the dedication and optimism I’ve developed over the years.
“I don’t have to go to the hospital,” he continued. “I’m fortunate enough to go to the hospital.”
Gay said he’s thankful for parents who stayed positive and helped him have this upbeat attitude. “My parents set the tone. You get what you’re given and you work hard.”
For Gay, this mindset was helpful as he faced the challenge of trying to maintain a healthy weight without exercise. After three years struggling to do this through healthy eating alone, he asked to participate in physical education again and got his doctor’s approval.
“As a patient, I’ve taken on a responsibility to maintain my health,” he said. “It’s my responsibility, not the physician’s.”
Since then he’s included non-contact exercise in his daily life, like tennis, weightlifting, biking and running.
“You figure out what you want, then work hard to get there. My heart condition represents that,” he said, explaining that he’s applied this approach to all his goals, whether it’s maintaining a heart-healthy weight or working toward a career in medicine. “I’ve had setbacks over the years and it’s taken me longer to get where I am, but you work hard to keep at your goals.”
Though Gay said he’s always been interested in the medical field, he had an epiphany his senior year of high school during a job shadow at Sacred Heart.
“It was a life-changing moment,” he said, recalling how a young patient with the same heart condition came in for an echocardiogram. “They didn’t expect this kid to live past 20,” Gay said. “I was 17. I’ve done really well. It made me realize I wanted to be involved in health care with children.”
Now, Gay said, his heart prediction is that he’ll live a normal life, with surgery every five to seven years to replace his defibrillator. Technology has advanced enough that his pacemaker can upload information wirelessly while he sleeps to a device that sends several months’ worth of information to the doctor’s office. Someday he may be that doctor.
While he’s open to other fields of medicine, Gay hopes to eventually work in pediatric cardiology. “I know the impact Dr. Chris Anderson had on me,” he said. “If you can help them while they have their whole life in front of them … I want to be in the Inland Northwest practicing medicine and giving back to the community that has helped me.”