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Snoqualmie dad waits for new heart

Nathan Gunderson, of Snoqualmie, spends time with daughter Mikaela in the Healing Garden at Sacred Heart Medical Center. Visits by his daughter lift his spirits as he waits for a heart transplant.  - Courtesy photo
Nathan Gunderson, of Snoqualmie, spends time with daughter Mikaela in the Healing Garden at Sacred Heart Medical Center. Visits by his daughter lift his spirits as he waits for a heart transplant.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

It seemed as if Snoqualmie residents Nathan and Genevieve Gunderson had achieved the American dream. The couple owned a home, had good jobs and were raising their energetic daughter, 14-month-old Mikaela.

But an infection in Nathan’s heart put all their dreams on hold. Once a healthy 31-year-old dad, he’s now under intensive care in a Spokane, Wash., hospital, waiting for a heart transplant to survive.

Troubled heart

Nathan’s illness began in late spring. Genevieve remembers that Nate suffered several cuts and scrapes after a yard work session in late March. Within a week, he had developed what seemed like flu symptoms, followed by heavy sweats, migraines and weight loss.

“All of this was shocking,” Genevieve said. “Before this, he was as healthy as an ox.”

Nathan started losing weight, and visited doctors at Snoqualmie Valley Hospital and Evergreen Hospital Medical Center. Physicians found that Nathan had bacterial endocarditis — a staffylococcus infection in his heart.

The bacteria were eating his heart.

Tiny pieces of bacteria would fleck off and travel out into his body, becoming small brown blisters called Osler’s Nodes visible under Nathan’s skin.

His weakened heart valves were pumping much less blood than normal. The lessened blood flow was creating what the Gundersons thought were migraines, but were actually mini-strokes.

“Fifty percent of the blood in his heart was falling back,” Genevieve said.

Bacterial infections of the heart are rare, but Nathan already had some preexisting heart conditions, including a heart murmur and a bicuspid valve, that left him vulnerable.

“If those pieces are all lined up and come together, it could happen to anyone,” Genevieve said.

In April, Nathan had open heart surgery to replace a damaged heart valve and remove a mass of bacteria-infected tissue that was causing the strokes. Afterward, he seemed to be getting better, but his family and physicians soon encountered a problem. There was swelling and fluid in his chest cavity, and his heart and lungs did not seem to be working together.

Doctors operated again and found that his new mechanical heart valve was off-kilter — “wiggling in the wind,” according to Genevieve.

He needed a second surgery in May to re-replace the valve and patch a hole that bacteria had eaten in the heart. His chances of survival in the surgery: 60 percent.

“It looked like the heart was pulling itself apart at the seams,” Genevieve said. “The tissue was paper-thin. The doctor said he had never seen anything like it before.”

Following the surgery, it took nearly two hours to stop the bleeding. Nathan was flown to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane to be put on the heart transplant list, living in the intensive care unit.

Normally, heart transplants are done on much older people. Nathan is probably one of the youngest men that the heart transplant staff at the hospital have ever seen. Hospital staff have enjoyed having a younger, more active patient to meet, according to Genevieve.

Fragile state

Nathan’s caretakers are working to keep his blood pressure stable as he waits for a heart.

“He’s doing OK,” Genevieve said. “It’s tough. Because of Nate’s fragile state, he can’t be exposed to a lot of coughs and sneezes.”

The hardest thing for Nathan is not being able to hold his daughter.

“He looks at his little girl, who’s growing like a weed... it’s overwhelming for him,” Genevieve said. “She’s really his everything.”

While Mikaela stays with her grandmother in Olympia, Genevieve sleeps next to Nathan in the intensive care unit most nights.

“He says I bring him peace and keep him sane,” she said.

Getting a new heart requires more than just a blood type match. There are a lot of factors that need to align for a successful heart transplant. And even if he got a heart transplant today, recovery would take months.

While at Sacred Heart, Nathan received a letter stating that he was laid off from his job with Microsoft. After Genevieve intervened, he was reinstated.

Still, the family is looking at potentially millions of dollars in hospital bills.

“For all of this to happen, it was one big blow after the next,” Genevieve said.

However, Genevieve is an optimist — she looks for the positives, although she knows something bad has to happen to someone else for her husband to live.

Nathan’s struggle has given Genevieve a way to put all of her abilities to use. Employed by Expedia, she is a writer who knows how to build Web pages, and now she’s using her talents and tapping her network of friends to spread the word about the importance of being an organ donor.

“It’s lit a fire under me,” she said.

Benefit plans

Gunderson’s family and friends have created Web sites and set up benefits to help spread the word about his illness, organ donation and raise funds to help the family.

Lynn Staude, owner at Snoqualmie Ridge Early Learning Center, held a Father’s Day barbecue to raise awareness about Nathan.

“All the families wore red hearts,” Staude said. The barbecue encouraged some parents to become organ donors.

Staude plans to hold a raffle in July to help the Gundersons, and is seeking donations from local businesses.

She will hold Mikaela’s spot at the school for as long as it takes for her to return.

“They’re a great family, a very loving family, very giving,” Staude said.

Before his illness, Nathan had created artworks featuring hearts. Now, those images can be purchased on T-shirts and other gear at a www.cafepress.com as a fundraiser.

Friends of the Gundersons also plan on offering an online auction, similar to eBay, to help.

Help Nate

• To learn more about Nathan’s illness, view a timeline of his story, get the latest updates and sign up to be an organ donor, visit www.g2folio.com/heart.htm

• For online auction information, visit www.fullheartfundraiser.com

• To see or purchase artworks and clothing featuring Nathan’s heart artworks, visit www.cafepress.com/nategunderson/6746167

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