Holding on to hope: Hilo man in need of heart transplant

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Things happened quickly for Darrell Silva. First, there was the February viral infection that made it difficult to keep food down. A certified nursing assistant, Silva worried he had an illness that could be passed on to his clients, but he went to urgent care and was told it wasn’t the flu.

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Things happened quickly for Darrell Silva. First, there was the February viral infection that made it difficult to keep food down. A certified nursing assistant, Silva worried he had an illness that could be passed on to his clients, but he went to urgent care and was told it wasn’t the flu.

By April, though, the infection hadn’t gone away. Silva couldn’t keep liquids down anymore. On April 5, he went to the hospital. His eyes were jaundiced, a sign that something was wrong with his liver. Doctors did an ultrasound of the liver, which led them to look at Silva’s heart.

“The damage was already done,” said Sharon Ruffner of Helping Angels of Hawaii, the home care nonprofit where Silva is a CNA. Ruffner was personally familiar with heart damage: her mother, whom she cared for for more than 30 years, had suffered similar damage and had had four open-heart surgeries.

But Silva, 31, is much younger than most heart surgery patients.

He was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle. The right side of his heart no longer pumps blood, meaning one side has to do all of the work. He has an irregular heartbeat. There was an aneurysm in his wrist, which led to nerve damage. He started having panic attacks.

“Every month, there’s something major,” Silva said. On April 11, he was flown to Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu for more treatment and diagnosis, but doctors still don’t know what the virus was that brought down his heart.

A thick scar across his chest marks where his pacemaker and defibrillator were put in at the end of April. Doctors, Silva said, are worried the heart will stop pumping entirely otherwise.

About a month ago, Silva got on the list for a heart transplant. He’s likely one of the youngest on the list, Ruffner said, but his age, along with the fact that Silva doesn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs, makes him a good candidate for a successful transplant.

In the next couple of months, he will travel to Stanford University for more testing, in the hopes that doctors will be able to identify the original virus.

For now, Silva waits.

He stopped volunteering as a Special Olympics coach, and, since most of his hobbies involve physical activity, stopped those, too.

Doctors advised him not to lift his 2-year-old daughter (Silva also has a son, born just two weeks ago), for fear the pacemaker wire might come loose.

“I’ve always taken care of people, and to be forced to have people take care of you is really difficult,” Silva said. “It throws everything off balance.”

Silva, who was born in Kona but has lived in Hilo most of his life, didn’t plan to be a CNA. It was something he fell into: he’d arranged a class for a former girlfriend, and when the couple broke up, his stepmother suggested he take the spot instead. It turned out he enjoyed the work.

Some of his clients had the same condition he now has.

“He’s probably one of the best CNAs I’ve ever worked with, and I’m a nurse,” Ruffner said. Silva received a certificate of recognition for his work from former Gov. Neil Abercrombie. He volunteered for years with LifeCare of Hilo.

To help pay for the piling costs of medical care, and the eventual cost of the transplant itself (which will include time spent in California), Ruffner and Helping Angels of Hawaii set up a fund for Silva.

Their ultimate fundraising goal is an ambitious $1 million.

In the immediate timeframe, the goal is $35,000, enough to help Silva move into a group care home in Honomu, a place that is “conducive to keeping healthy,” Ruffner said.

The typical wait time for a new heart is about a year and a half, she said.

Silva said he spoke with a nurse at Queen’s who had had a transplant of her own, and was encouraged that she’d gone back to work within a year.

He wants to get back to work and back to the Special Olympics coaching, as well as start an awareness campaign so more people know about heart problems.

“This has changed a lot of things,” Silva said.

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For more information or to donate to Silva’s heart transplant fund, contact Ruffner and Helping Angels of Hawaii at 756-9927.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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