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Heart transplant comes just in time for Arizona teen

19-year-old Max Epel seemed like any other healthy young adult heading off to college. That was until his heart began to shut down.

PHOENIX — When 19-year-old Max Epel moved into his Northern Arizona University dorm he was feeling a bit under the weather. He and his family couldn't have imagined the real reason.

His heart was shutting down.

"Right when I moved in, I was feeling a little weird," Max said.

"Everyone thought he had an upper respiratory issue," Max's mom, Tracey Epel, said.

The Epels didn't think anything of it. Max constantly hiked, snowboarded, and rock climbed.

“I was staying pretty active given my circumstance, I feel like," Max said.

His circumstance goes back to before he was born. When Tracey was six months pregnant, doctors told her Max would have a birth defect.

“It was hypoplastic left heart syndrome,” Tracey said.

Essentially, Max had half of a working heart. By the time Max turned three, he had already undergone three heart surgeries.

“I think the success rate at that time was 50-60 percent of the way,” Tracey said.

However, Max lived a relatively normal childhood, until starting his freshman year at Northern Arizona University.

What was originally believed to be a cold got worse. Doctors in Flagstaff couldn't figure out what was wrong.

“I just kept hoping some test would come back and go oh—this is what it is,” Tracey said.

When Max went home for Thanksgiving break, his parents took him to Phoenix Children's Hospital. The diagnosis? 

Heart failure.

“What do you mean heart failure? He was perfectly healthy. He went off to college.” Tracey said.

"Respiratory symptoms, vomiting, those kinds of issues can be very commonly seen in heart failure." Dr. Bethany Wisotzkey, a pediatric cardiologist at Phoenix Children's Hospital, said.

On January 3rd—Max got his transplant.

“The hospital wasn’t big enough for his laps,” Tracey said. “The wonderful thing about a heart transplant is there is no specific shelf life for a heart.” Dr. Wisotzkey said.

On January 30th, PCH discharged Max. Barring any setback, Dr. Wisotzkey says he should have a full life.

“You live with half a heart for 19 years, and then you are donated a full working one. It’s a big change.” Max said.


>>Signs, symptoms, and what to do about heart disease

>>Arizona Department of Heath Services

>>Phoenix Children's Center for Heart Care


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