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Last fall, Darrel Ballard’s heart started dying.
He was in and out of hospitals for months before he wound up at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, waiting for a transplant. During much of that time, he had only been allowed to see and speak to his children over Skype.
But his nurses made arrangements for his family to visit him on Jan. 28, his daughter Autumn’s fourth birthday.
"He was so sick, he could hardly hold his head up," said Stacy Ballard, Darrel's wife. "Autumn told him she asked God to give him a new heart."
Five days later, Feb. 3, Darrel got exactly that.
Darrel Ballard, 35, grew up in Holy Cross, but he and his family moved to Lee County after he finished the eighth grade at St. Charles Middle School. His father worked at Marion Adjustment Center, and he'd gotten a job at the prison in Lee County.
After graduating from Lee County High, Darrel took classes at Eastern Kentucky University for a few years before returning to Marion County.
He met Stacy more than 10 years ago, and just a few weeks later, he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which meant his heart was enlarged and weakened.
"I never felt a thing. I just went to the doctor because I was sick. I was at work that day, so I called and made an appointment at FIMA. They done a chest X-ray. I had bronchitis, so I went on back to work," Darrel said.
About an hour later, they called and said he needed to get to the hospital. X-rays revealed his enlarged heart.
The doctors also tested Darrel’s ejection fraction, which measures how much blood leaves the heart with each contraction, according to the Mayo Clinic website.
Darrel said a normal heart has an ejection fraction around 50 percent.
"When they found this problem out, I wasn't putting out but about 20 percent," he said.
With the help of medication, Darrel lived a relatively normal life. Darrel and Stacy married about nine years ago. He has worked at the Marion County Water District (and doing tobacco work) and helped Stacy raise their children, Bethany, now 14, and Autumn.
Last Halloween, things started going wrong, and they went wrong quickly.
Darrel's ejection fraction dropped to 10 percent, according to Stacy. He was taken to Louisville, where he met his cardiologist, Dr. Gurbachan Sohi, at Norton Hospital. The doctors made some changes to Darrel's medications, and about four days later, they sent him home.
A few weeks later, on the day he returned to work, Darrel started feeling bad again, which meant a trip to the emergency room at Spring View, and then back to Norton Hospital.
"That was right before Thanksgiving. That's when they decided maybe I ought to get a pacemaker," Darrel said.
When the surgeon came to talk to him, Darrel figured they would schedule the surgery a week or two later.
"He was wanting to do it the next day," Darrel said. "I said, 'Well, let's do it.'"
For a few weeks, things were OK, but on Dec. 27, he wound up back in the hospital again.
Stacy said during that stay at Norton that Sohi told them they'd done everything they could do with medicine, so he put them in contact with Dr. Navin Rajagopalan at the University of Kentucky Transplant Center.
On Dec. 31, Darrel made the trip to UK so he could meet with "Dr. Raj" the next morning. A few days later, Darrel had been added to the transplant list, and a day later he'd been designated 1A, which meant he needed a heart transplant as soon as possible.
"They said I was a good candidate for it since my heart was so weak," he said.
Stacy said Darrel's ejection fraction was 7 percent by that point.
Darrel was also a good transplant candidate because of his age, relative good health (besides his heart) and small stature, which meant he could receive a heart from a male or a female donor.
For the rest of the month of January, Darrel stayed at the UK Medical Center, waiting for a transplant. Around 2 p.m. Feb. 2, he found out they might have a heart for him the next day.
The morning of the operation, Darrel's surgeon Dr. Charles Hoopes, left around 2 a.m. to drive to the hospital, but his car had been stolen.
"He had to walk three miles to the hospital that morning to do his surgery," Stacy said.
"It was during one of those big snows," Darrel said.
Around 5 a.m. Feb. 3, the medical staff started prepping him for surgery. The first incision was around 7 a.m. and the surgery was done by 12:30 that afternoon.
"The next couple days are kind of blurry to me," Darrel said.
They are perfectly clear to his family, however.
Stacy said the color came back to Darrel's face the same day he got his new heart, and by the next day he was walking. On Feb. 5, they measured his ejection fraction again.
"It went from 7 percent back to normal — 50 — with a new heart," he said.
Darrel was out of the hospital by Feb. 11, although he had to stay at a hotel in Lexington for a few weeks in case something happened.
Darrel did have a seizure at the hotel while Stacy was with him.
"It scared her to death," he said. "She called 911, and everything was kind of a blur for me there for about an hour or two."
Stacy said the doctors told them that 36 percent of transplant recipients have a seizure, often because of the medicine used to reduce the chance of rejecting the organ.
Fittingly, Darrel -- and his new heart -- got out of the hospital on Valentine's Day.
He came home on Feb. 26.
Since then, he's had a few follow-up appointments, and his tests show that his body is accepting his new heart.
"It's been a wild adventure," Stacy said.
At this point, Stacy said they don't know whose heart Darrel received. At the hospital, the Ballards signed a thank you card using just their first names for the family of the heart donor.
"It's just to let 'em know we appreciate what they done for us. They are in mourning. They did lose someone," Stacy said.
She added that they would like to meet the family some day to let them know their loved one is living on through Darrel.
"What they done for us is a miracle," Stacy said.
Darrel will have regular follow-up exams for years, but so far everything is going well.
"I don't guess it really bothered me. I lost about 20 pounds while I was in there, but I done gained about 15 of it back," Darrel said.
The Ballards also had nothing but praise for the doctors and nurses who treated him during the last few months, especially the staff at UK.
"This whole transplant team has been great. I couldn't ask for any better," he said.
Stacy added that Donna Dennis, the heart transplant coordinator at UK, has provided all kinds of help. She even personally delivered a letter from Darrel to UK Basketball Coach John Calipari's office.
"She's liable to call me tonight just to check on me," Darrel said. "She does that."
Darrel is hopeful that he'll be able to return to work soon. Stacy added that both the water district and her employer, the Loretto Motherhouse, have been supportive throughout the process, including being flexible with her schedule so she could be with Darrel at the hospital and collecting money to help them with expenses.
More support came from family and friends. Stacy and Darrel's parents helped get their daughters to and from school, and Stacy said Bethany helped around the house and with her younger sister.
They've even received some anonymous help as well.
"We got two cards in the mail randomly, out of the blue before any of this happened with the transplant. He went out to get the mail one day, and all it said was 'Jesus loves you' and had a hundred dollar bill in it. And he went out the next day and got the mail again, and all it said on it was 'Merry Christmas, Jesus loves you,'" Stacy said.
The second card had $100 bill as well.
"We sure would like to thank whoever done that," Darrel said. "It's the same person, same handwriting and everything. There was no return address or nothing."
Stacy said her friend Sherry McCauley provided a lot of support by being there whenever Stacy needed someone.
"If it hadn't been for her, I don't know what I'd done, probably lost my mind," Stacy said.
But as much as anything, she appreciates all the prayers that have been offered for Darrel and their family over the last five months.
"We've had people storming heaven for us," Stacy said. "If it wasn't for that, we wouldn't be where we're at right now."
Benefit auction is May 10
A fundraiser for Darrel Ballard and his family is set for 6 p.m. May 10 at the St. Francis gym in Loretto.
The benefit will include a DJ, a 50/50 raffle, karaoke, concessions and an auction. For more information, to purchase a shirt or raffle tickets, call Sherry McCauley at 270-699-1300, Cheryl Mattingly at 270-865-6261, J.E. Mattingly at 270-699-6751, or Emily Ralston at 502-827-0113.
Anyone wishing to donate can also take money to US Bank, where an account has been set up for Darrel Ballard’s benefit.