It only took weeks for a virus to destroy the healthy heart of an east Hamilton teen now living with the help of machines while awaiting a transplant to survive.
“We couldn’t believe it,” said his mom, Michele Wilson. “I was absolutely shocked. We thought, ‘Oh my god. A virus can do this?’”
At first, Aaron O’Neill thought he had a cold when he started getting headaches and a cough in February. Next, it was the flu with vomiting and diarrhea.
His increasing illness stumped doctors in Hamilton — from family medicine to the emergency department at St. Joseph’s Hospital to Hamilton General, which specializes in heart care.
It wasn’t until the 18-year-old recent graduate of Hill Park Secondary School was sent to Toronto General in March that he got the stunning news that his heart was barely working — down to 19 per cent function because of a virus. The only fix is a heart transplant.
“Our whole world was pulled out from under us,” said Wilson. “He’s 18. He shouldn’t be living in a hospital bed waiting for a new heart.”
Their lives are now a waiting game.
O’Neill stays at Toronto General while his mom and stepdad travel back and forth each day from Hamilton, sleeping with cellphones beside their pillows.
A left ventricular assist device is implanted inside the teen’s body to help that side of his heart function. His right is helped by a similar device on the outside that has to be trailed along with him wherever he goes — along with a team of people to ensure the machines continue to work properly.
“It sucks,” says O’Neill who is used to being active through swimming, scuba diving and playing paintball as well as being a Royal Canadian air cadet with 779 squadron. “You can’t do much. You just wait for that heart.”
The family was already registered as organ donors and had, by coincidence, talked to O’Neill about signing up himself only two weeks before he got sick.
“The waiting is a nightmare,” said Wilson. “It’s hard to think about because someone else has to die.”
O’Neill, who is 7 feet tall, has dropped 50 pounds since getting sick and now weighs roughly 215 pounds.
An outpouring of support from the community, friends and even strangers on Facebook is helping to keep his spirits up.
Hill Park organized a drive to register organ donors that has resulted in 27 people signing up.
“You couldn’t miss Aaron,” Cheryl Poot, head of student services, said of his time at the school. “At 7 feet tall, he was easily sighted. He’s a wonderful kid, pleasant, polite, kind and caring.”
O’Neill was taking a year off after graduation to decide what to do with his future. Now he just wants a chance to live.
“I’m quite scared,” he said. “I just want to be home and not attached to so many tethers.”
He has one request for the two out of three Hamiltonians who have not yet registered to be organ donors.
“Sign up,” he said. “You’re not going to use your organs when you’re gone so leave them for the rest of us.”