MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — Years after receiving a heart transplant, Matt Castle wants to be an example.

“It gave me a second chance,” he said.

Castle, a 46-year-old Anacortes resident, swims for Team USA in the World Transplant Games, an international competition for transplant recipients, where he’s setting records and bringing home gold.

Now, almost eight years after his transplant, Castle’s doing his part to build awareness for the need for organ donors, and show transplant recipients that they can take their life back.

“I want to show that I’m healthy, I’m active, and I’m using this gift that I’ve been given to set an example,” he said.

Before his diagnoses, Castle worked as a commercial fisherman, catching salmon and herring in Alaska, and spent his off time surfing and mountain biking in Hawaii.

He said he noticed something was wrong in 2005, when he was 33. Things he didn’t have trouble with before started to wear him out more quickly.

“I’d be mountain biking with my brother, and he’d have to wait up for me,” he said. (My heart) just wasn’t pumping like it should.”

Upon returning to Anacortes, where he grew up, Castle was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy, caused by a virus that enlarged his heart and affected its ability to pump blood through his body.

Medication and a pacemaker helped keep him relatively stable for several years, but it was clear that he was limited by his condition.

“I really started to go downhill in 2009,” he said. “It got so bad that I couldn’t even walk.”

He underwent emergency surgery and was told he would eventually need a heart transplant. After eight months on the organ waiting list, he got a call, and was given 24 hours to prepare for the transplant at the University of Washington Medical Center.

Once the procedure was over, Castle said he started to feel better quickly. Recovery, though, involved weekly doctor visits and about 40 pills a day to suppress his immune system.

“Your body never accepts the transplanted organ,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”

But as the months passed and the doses decreased, Castle said he started to regain his strength. Within about a year, he was working on getting his life back.

“You want to get back to being normal,” he said. “Have a job, be productive.”

One of the obligations for getting a donated organ is to commit to a healthy lifestyle, he said, and that came with a plan to exercise. On a whim, he said he would try swimming.

After spending a couple years getting back in shape, he happened on the website for the World Transplant Games, a kind of Olympics for people who’ve had organ transplants, held every other year.

“I saw their times and I thought ‘yeah, I could beat that,'” he said.

Castle competed in his first transplant games, the Transplant Games of America, in Houston in 2014. The American games are held in the off-years.

In 2015, he competed at his first international games, in Venezuela. He’s been at every national and international game since.

Because of the severity of the procedure, Castle said he would understand if the public thought of heart transplant recipients as fragile and sedentary. With his swimming, he said he’s trying to show the world, and other recipients, that they can still be active and engaged with life.

“You can do this too. You can get your life back,” he said. “That’s what they want to hear.”

Cate Oliver, communications program manager with Lifecenter Northwest, said people like Castle are their greatest method of getting others to think differently about donation.

Lifecenter Northwest is an organ procurement organization responsible for matching donors to patients across four states and 190 hospitals.

According to Oliver, 4,013 people are on the waiting list for heart transplants nationwide, out of 116,718 people waiting across all categories.

Twenty people die every day in America waiting for an organ donation as demand continues to outpace supply, according to the federal Health and Human Services website.

Oliver said her organization promotes stories like Castle’s in order to combat damaging myths about organ donation. The most persistent, she said, is the idea that doctors won’t try as hard to save organ donors.

In fact, she said, the doctors and nurses who treat patients in emergency situations are completely separate from the medical professionals that make decisions around organ donation.

Others, she said, are concerned that something in their medical history would preclude them from donating, so they don’t sign up.

One of the biggest obstacles to organ donation, Castle said, is that people don’t like to think about death.

“Especially if you’re a parent with kids, (death) is not something you want to think about,” he said.

As a recipient of a donated organ, Castle said his goal is just to give people accurate information and ask people to talk about it. He’s been invited to speak at schools and drivers’ education classes to show the importance of being a donor.

“Nothing I’ve done would be possible without the donors,” Castle said.


Information from: Skagit Valley Herald, http://www.skagitvalleyherald.com

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BRANDON STONE
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