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'Today wasn't a guarantee'

by DEVIN WEEKS
Staff Writer | November 10, 2023 1:09 AM

His second child had just entered the world when Matt Hankes began waiting for another important delivery: A new heart.

The 41-year-old physical therapist, who is the clinic director of North Idaho Physical Therapy in Post Falls, lived with a heart condition his whole life, but it wasn't discovered until he passed out during a football game his sophomore year.

"I was a healthy 15-year-old kid that day," he said, "and four days later received a diagnosis of arrythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy and had a defibrillator implanted."

This potentially fatal genetic condition weakens the heart. Hankes was the first in his family to be diagnosed, although his brother had a similar event a few years later and received the same diagnosis, followed by a heart transplant in 2020.

Hankes still enjoyed outdoor recreation despite the limitations of this condition.

"I always joked how the mountains in Idaho kept getting steeper, when in reality that was the worsening of my heart over the years," he said.

Hankes, of Post Falls, and wife Leigh Ann welcomed their first daughter, Hannah, seven years ago. Baby No. 2, Elise, was on the way when Matt's heart began acting up.

He was OK in January 2022, hiking in deep snow around New Year's, but he soon fell ill. A flight of stairs or a walk across a parking lot became a challenge.

Hankes was admitted to the hospital to have a hole in his heart repaired. Advanced Heart Disease and Transplant Department doctors then told him he needed a new heart.

He faced the news with shock, however, he always knew it was a possibility. 

"Then my head shifted to how much better I will be after a transplant and I tried to mentally prepare for all that comes with waiting for a heart, for me and my family," he said.

Testing and preparation ensued. Hankes needed to be in shape to accept a transplanted heart, especially considering the shortage of these precious organs.

In March 2022 he was notified that he qualified. Leigh Ann was 36 weeks pregnant.

They waited to activate Hankes' spot on the transplant waiting list until the baby was born. He was given a waiting estimate of six to 12 months. 

Elise was born Easter morning. Hankes activated his place on the waiting list when Elise was 4 days old.

He underwent several procedures — two cardioversions and an ablation — while waiting for the call with news of a match, which finally came Feb. 3, 2023.

"I’d like to think they have heard every response in the book when they have made this phone call, but I think my response was, 'Are you sure?,' which I still laugh at," Hankes recalled.

He felt nothing but excitement up to the surgery, knowing it was necessary to stay alive. He had no fear of a bad outcome or complications and embraced each moment with patience.

"I was able to kiss my girls good night and we drove into Spokane," he said. "The next morning I was taken downstairs where the surgery would be, and was able to say goodbye to Leigh Ann before heading back."

He woke up foggy after hours in surgery. As the 10th procedure on his heart, the transplant was a success.

When he came out of anesthesia, he called his wife at 5 a.m. and said, "Hey, Leigh Ann."

Hankes spent the next nine months recovering, loving having a new baby cradled in his arm and being home with his girls.

"Just being around them for dinner every night was special," he said.

He exercised, lifted weights and returned to work Oct. 30, but not before bagging a buck during hunting season.

"Matt is the most humble and kind person I have ever met and his courage through this process has been so inspiring to so many," said Justin Kane, owner of North Idaho Physical Therapy. "His story is one of courage, hope and personal growth."

It is not lost on Hankes that a family is grieving the loss of a loved one while he holds his own close to his heart.

"There is an anonymous person who made the selfless decision to be listed as an organ donor," he said. "He or his family made a choice that saved my life and hopefully several others. I am eternally thankful to these people and moving forward, I am doing all I can to be a good recipient of their kindness."

Hankes wants to encourage those who are able to consider being organ donors to help save lives and prevent families from experiencing unnecessary painful loss.

"When I pushed hard during my recovery, I did it for me and my family, but I felt that I owed it to others to work really hard and honor the gift," Hankes said. "I strive to live each day right, as today wasn’t a guarantee until I received my new heart."

More than 100,000 people in need of transplants are currently on a waiting list. Last year, around 40,000 transplants were performed; 4,169 were heart transplants.

Info: donatelife.net

    Post Falls dad, husband, physical therapist and heart transplant survivor Matt Hankes gives a thumbs up the morning after his surgery in February. Hankes is extremely grateful for the gift of a new heart to replace his old heart, which deteriorated after a lifelong serious condition.


 
 
    Matt Hankes of Post Falls takes his first walk in the hospital hallway in February after undergoing a heart transplant. He recently returned to work and is feeling great and grateful.
 
 
    Matt Hankes, who underwent a heart transplant surgery in February, is seen with a buck he bagged in mid-October during a hunting trip.
 
 
    Heart transplant survivor and proud papa Matt Hankes is seen with his girls on a vacation to the Oregon Coast this summer. Pictured with Hankes: Wife Leigh Ann and daughters Elise, 18 months, and Hannah, 7.