Gators doing good: Mark Wilson’s new heart

Mark Wilson sits on a bench, shin guards concealed under long socks. He reaches down and ties his cleats; sweat begins to bead on his forehead. It’s 70 degrees but the humidity leaves the air thick and wet.

The sun beats down behind a few strands of thin clouds on a beautiful Saturday morning. Dew cloaks the well-manicured grass, blanketing the turf, which glistens as the sun continues to rise in the morning sky.

Footprints begin to form in the dew as more than 70 current and former Florida Gators men’s club soccer players show up to University Village South Field (UVS) for their annual Agin’ Gators Alumni game. The University of Florida Men’s Club Soccer (UFMCS) was founded in 1953 by Alan C. Moore (A.C.), then an Instructor of Physical Education at the University of Florida, and lays claim as the “Oldest Collegiate Soccer Club” in the United States. Every year the alumni group, nicknamed the “Agin’ Gators Soccer Society, comes back to campus to take on the current team in an exhibition. The game is an exhibition, but don’t tell that to the participants, mixed with strapping 18-22 year old current players and alumni spanning five decades dating back to 1971 (Jack Plant).

Soccer balls roll out on to the field. Players start dribbling and passing. Locker room trash talk is exchanged. The Agin’ Gators hold a 16-7-6 record over the young whippersnappers and they plan on making it 17 this year. Mark joins in on the banter, but this isn’t just another alumni game, or exhibition. This is a day that Mark statistically shouldn’t be at. He shouldn’t be running around on a field with guys half his age, he shouldn’t be on the field playing soccer, he’s lucky to even be in attendance.

He’s lucky to be alive.

***

Mark played soccer in high school. He was captain of his team at Taravella High School in Coral Springs. Mark had interest from Mercer and he visited UCF with the idea of potentially walking on to their team. He kept his options open with the hopes of being able to continue playing soccer competitively at the next level, but he wasn’t desperate.

“I did not go to Tallahassee,” Mark said of his senior year in high school. “I didn’t care, didn’t want to go there.”

His love of soccer had him considering going out of state to Mercer, but one trip to Gainesville proved that his love for the Florida Gators was stronger than his love for the game.

“When I stepped on campus in Gainesville I was like, this is it,” he said. “I grew up and was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and I don’t know why, but for some reason Gainesville just sort of clicked with me. It felt a little bit like home, even though it’s not quite the same. So that was a done deal. It was like soccer was important to me, but this just felt like me. I was like Gainesville’s it.”

The competitive fire still lit, Mark sought out an option to keep playing. He found the UFMCS. The club gave Mark an outlet to continue playing soccer, which is all that he originally sought out, but he ended up in sort of a fraternity, surrounded by strangers that would quickly become friends and eventually brothers that he still keeps in touch with 30 years after graduating.

“We were kind of this amalgamation of all sorts of different people from all different walks of life, different nationalities. It was so cool. It was just like bringing together a bunch of guys who all had a passion to play.”

Mark played four years before graduating. He and his wife Paulette, Pauli for short, were high school sweethearts who both attended college together. They’ve been married for more than 25 years. She was a Health and Human Performance major; he was a Journalism & Communications major with a focus on Advertising. The two later moved to Arizona with their two children where Mark continued his career in the travel industry. By every definition Mark was living out his American dream with his wife and kids. They were a close-knit household that would soon be facing the greatest test imaginable.

***

Mark was in good shape and good health. Admittedly he wasn’t the 20-year old college kid running around the UVS fields, but he worked out, played golf, watched what he ate and was active. So when he started feeling a bit run down he assumed it was just a cold. A trip to his primary doctor yielded the standard run of antibiotics. You know the drill. The antibiotics usually clear up a cold quickly, so quickly in fact that the doctor normally needs to remind the patient that they need to finish the full dose of medication, even if they feel better before it is done.

A week later and Mark was feeling worse. He returned to his primary care physician who decided to dig a little deeper. Mark was poked, prodded, went through X-rays and ultrasounds. He was asked to sit tight, the first peculiarity of the visit.

Sitting in the room, confused and in the dark, Mark waited. His doctor came back with a different attitude. She explained that Mark had an enlarged heart and it was failing. He was going through congestive heart failure right there in the room. The situation was dire. Mark’s physician advised that he leave the lab and head directly to the hospital.

Do not pass go. Do not collect $200, get to the hospital and get there yesterday.

Pauli quickly joined Mark’s side and took him to Arrowhead Hospital where Mark was admitted immediately. Doctors quickly inserted a balloon pump to help Mark’s heart, which was functioning at 10 percent of what it should have been.

Mark’s next move was to the intensive care unit. The balloon pump was a stopgap, a Band-Aid on a wound that really needed stitches, just something to give the doctor’s time to access the damage and plan a course of action. Ultimately, the doctors at Arrowhead advised that Mark be moves to the Mayo Clinic for further review.

“I’m being whisked from this test to that test, and then appointment from this person and that person,” Mark recalled. “They just kept streaming into my room over a period of probably 2-3 days. They don’t mess around.”

Within hours of leaving his home to go to the doctor for what he assumed was a stubborn cold Mark would be lying on a table, undergoing surgery, then shaking hands with a surgeon who introduced himself as the “one who does heart transplants.

This would be the first time Mark heard “heart transplant” as an option.

Imagine sitting in a cold room that smells of medical supplies. You’re in a hospital issued gown, strangers come in and out, grab a chart, read it, jot down notes and then leave. The faint beeping in the background is a monitor connected to your heart. The rhythmic beats that should be a reminder that you’re still alive now sound like a ticking bomb.

Mark spent several days in the ICU at Mayo before he was transitioned to a regular hospital room. The seemingly small change of scenery, however, provided a light at the end of the tunnel moment for Mark. The next week Mark regained some strength and was even able to get out of bed and move around his room. The option of a full heart transplant was there, but right now the focus was on trying to strengthen Mark’s own heart, which would require enough medication to keep a pharmacy running on his own.

10 days passed before doctors gave Mark the green light to go home. Mark spent the next eight months on strict orders. You are not to over exert yourself; you take your medication every day and relax. You may be leaving the hospital but this is just the beginning.

In November of 2010, eight months after the initial diagnosis, Mark had a Medtronic defibrillator/pacemaker put in by a new doctor, one that he would come to find out was a Gator, just like him.

Mark was given a plan to follow that would help him adjust back to a regular life, one that he pushed to the limit. The human body is an amazing thing and Mark, even with a failing heart, pushed his body throughout this process. He returned to work, and got back into the gym. He would get into the office, sneak in a quick 15-20 minute lunch before getting back to his desk. The gym was his next stop where he worked back up his cardio and stamina on the treadmill. By the end of 2012 he had built his heart ejection function from eight percent all the way up to 36 percent. This wasn’t the life Mark had envisioned for himself, but he was adjusting and each day seemed more normal as two years passed.

One evening in early January something was off. Mark felt lightheaded, short of breath and disorientated.

Mark was experiencing ventricular tachycardia, a condition where the heart begins to race out of control, leading to cardiac arrest. The Medtronic device gave him a shock that corrected it and after a minute or two he felt fine, but a few days later the episode repeated itself again and again. A trip to the doctor and a six-hour ablation surgery revealed that Mark’s heart was going through arrhythmia. Medication was added, adjusted and tweaked but the problem persisted, sending Mark back to the hospital as the heart he had worked for two years to strengthen was weakening yet again.

Mark was admitted to Scottsdale Hospital in April 2014. Doctor’s put him on the strongest anti-arrhythmic drug on the market, Amiodarone. This meant Mark had to go cold turkey on his old medication and wait for the Amiodarone to kick in. It nearly cost him his life.

There’s that ominous beeping again. A heart monitor sounding more like a bomb planted by a villain in a James Bond movie. Each beep could be the last.

He Flatlined.

Mark coded three times at Scottsdale and doctors had to use an external defibrillator to resuscitate him.

It was back to Mayo Clinic, this time in worse shape than before. Mark was stabilized and doctors sent him back home after a week, a trip that lasted 15 hours before he ended back in the hospital where another balloon pump was inserted.

Mark spent the next three months in and out of ICU at Mayo Clinic. Two years of rehabilitation to strengthen his heart was gone. Unable to so much as lift a finger he withered down to 120 pounds in the hospital bed.

Mark got word that given his condition he was being activated on the heart transplant list. His sick heart fluttered before it was explained to him that he was on “Status 7” meaning he was too unstable to receive a heart.

The decision was made to have a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) placed. A little machine that easily fit in the palm of Mark’s hand would be solely responsible for pumping his heart, but that heart was so weak at this point he may not even survive the surgery.

The surgery was touch and go but a success. Mark was bedridden for a month after the surgery but he was eventually discharged and returned home. He focused on recovery and cardiac rehabilitation, but the challenges of living with a LVAD meant Mark was dependent on electricity, either from a wall socket or from a dual-battery pack that he carried everywhere.

Months went by before Mark was moved from his “Status 7” to “1B” essentially meaning that he was high on the transplant list but also able to be living at home. Organ donation is a gift, one not taken lightly. Mark had to go through a series of tests and interviews, physical, mental and spiritual before he received this new designation.

“They literally can deny people even being on the list if they are not willing to accept the situation and be willing to change their lives. It’s basically are you going to be able to take care of this gift? Otherwise we have other people who are going to.”

Mark started attending a support group at the Mayo Clinic.

“I went to this group, and I saw other people who had got hearts,” Mark said. “This person’s one year out, and look how good they look. They’re doing this. They’re back to work. It’s like I can actually do this. This is amazing. Mentally it was huge.”

As he had now done several times before, Mark adjusted and became accustomed to his new life, new device and his new hope. Mark was assigned a coordinator who regularly checked in on him after his LVAD surgery, it all meshed into what was now his new normal.

Mark’s cellphone rang. It was October 22. His coordinator was on the other line, normal.

“Hey Mark, what are you doing tonight?”

“I don’t know. What am I doing tonight?”

“Why don’t you come on in? We have a heart for you.”

If the thrill of those words, four years in waiting, didn’t cause cardiac arrest on the spot Mark would get his heart.

“It was like we’re having a baby. I have to get to the hospital now. They were like, yes, get yourself together, but you can just get here and check in. It wasn’t like a panicked rush. Then when I got there, it was so weird. I’m like, I’m here, let’s go. Then it was like the scene from some movie where it’s the waiting room music, and you’re sitting there. It’s like hurry, hurry, and then it’s like [whistling]. Waiting to check in. Standing in line for the next representative, #5 here. Guy for the heart transplant, checking in?”

The transplant process is a brilliantly strategic and coordinated event. Two surgeons, one prepping Mark for surgery and the other who is recovering the donated organ and transporting it back to Mayo.

Mark is a wreck of emotions, nervous, anxious, scared and hopeful but this was meant to be. This is what he had spent the last four years of his life fighting for. Even as he lay in the hospital there was a chance that this could have been all for not. The surgeon recovering the heart could find that it’s not fit for transplant, which would send Mark’s surgeon into his room with heartbreaking news.

Mark underwent heart transplant surgery on October 23, 2014. The seven-hour procedure went off without a hiccup and it was back to the familiar ICU hospital room.

Laying in bed, his heart beating without the aid of a balloon, a pacemaker or LVAD for the first time since 2010, Mark thought of his family. His children and Pauli had been with him every step of the way. He’s pushed for them, for himself and even stuck in an ICU bed he could see the finish line of a nightmarish period in all of their lives.

Mark began checking off boxes in his recovery process. He got out of bed and walked around his room. The walks ventured out into the hallways and he eventually was released back home. He began pushing himself, within reason, started working again and began going to a personal trainer, who tailored a program specifically to Mark’s needs.

Mark’s personal experience led him back to the support group at Mayo. The group had given him such hope in his moments of despair that he wanted to give back. He even reached out to his donor family. Transplant recipients are given the option to reach out to the donor family, although there is no guarantee that the correspondence will be reciprocated.

Mark got in touch with his donor’s mother Traci on Mother’s Day this year. Traci and Mark sent e-mails back and forth before a meeting was set. Mark brought flowers and Traci brought a picture of her daughter Sunni. The two spoke. They cried as Traci told Mark about her daughter and then Traci listened to Sunni’s heart with a stethoscope.

***

The dew has long left the grass as Mark gets into the alumni game for the final period. Mark takes off down the field as the ball finds his feet. For a moment he’s that 20-year old who’s worried about getting this game done so he can to happy hour with his friends after.

Another dribble closer to the goal, another step further away from that ICU hospital bed.

Mark looks up, sets himself and shoots.

The shot is saved by the goalkeeper. It would be Mark’s only attempt on goal but this day wasn’t about scoring goals. It was about being able to step on the field one more time as a Gator. Mark spent the previous six years with tubes, balloons and devices living life for him.

Today, on this field with Pauli cautiously monitoring her husband’s expenditure, Mark is living.

***

Since Mark’s transplant he has become an outspoken proponent of organ donation. Through Mark’s own website (Gatorheart.com) he has shared his story from diagnosis to recovery and continues to update his story as well as share how organ donation has changed his life and how it can change the lives of others.

Currently there are more than 120,000 people awaiting organ donation and another person is added every 10 minutes. More than 20 people die each day awaiting organ transplants, but just one organ, eye and tissue donor can save more than 50 lives.

Mark has created a national Gator Heart signup campaign through the company Donate Life.

We encourage all who read this to check out both Gator Heart and Donate Life to see if organ donation is something that

Gator Country plans to continue our “Gators doing Good” series, to highlight how Gators take care of Gators and how former students or student-athletes are making an impact in their community. If you know of any Gator that you think should be featured feel free to shoot us a line over at Gator Country. Thank you to Mark for reaching out to us and sharing the details of his story. We were honored to be able to tell you more about it and help Mark in his effort to raise awareness for all those still waiting for the miracle that Mark was able to receive.

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Nick de la Torre
A South Florida native, Nick developed a passion for all things sports at a very young age. His love for baseball was solidified when he saw Al Leiter’s no-hitter for the Marlins live in May of 1996. He was able to play baseball in college but quickly realized there isn’t much of a market for short, slow outfielders that hit around the Mendoza line. Wanting to continue with sports in some capacity he studied journalism at the University of Central Florida. Nick got his first start in the business as an intern for a website covering all things related to the NFL draft before spending two seasons covering the Florida football team at Bleacher Report. That job led him to GatorCountry. When he isn’t covering Gator sports, Nick enjoys hitting way too many shots on the golf course, attempting to keep up with his favorite t.v. shows and watching the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. Follow him on twitter @NickdelatorreGC