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The doctors never saw this coming

       Austin Newland enjoys being outdoors, riding his BMX bike, playing various sports, pushing the pace on the Manitou Incline, fixing cars and rally-racing them.

Austin Newland (left) as he looks today and (at right) during his heart transplant Aug. 10, 1996. The new heart was expected to last just five years. He still has it.
Westside Pioneer photo

       But if his mother Tammy had followed doctors' advice, the 19-year-old Westsider might have a much more sedentary lifestyle.
       Doctors tend to worry that way, when kids are born with failing hearts.
       For the first 26 days of Austin's life, until Aug. 10, 1996, an apparatus had to be attached to his tiny heart - which lacked the two necessary openings on the left side that allow blood to be pumped in - so he wouldn't die of oxygen deprivation.
       It's unknown what caused the problem. He was a full-term child, otherwise healthy. Tammy later learned that a hypoplastic heart, as it's called, happens on average in 1 out every million babies.

LEFT: Tammy Newland with her son Austin. RIGHT: Austin performs a stunt on his BMX bicycle.
Westside Pioneer photo

       During those 26 days, Tammy, then just 15, and her mother Connie, had to make a tough decision. The best chance for Austin's survival was a heart transplant operation at Children's Hospital in Denver. The odds of his survival were favorable (80 percent), but it was a fairly new surgery at that time (his would be among the first 100 of that type at Children's). Complications could arise if the body rejected the new heart, and even if it was accepted, five years was its maximum expected duration.
       At least a replacement heart was available. Tammy never knew the donor's name - just that the organ was three months older than Austin's and came from somewhere in the Rocky Mountain region. After the 10-hour surgery led by Dr. David Campbell, that heart became his.
       It was part of an interesting time. Because of her age, Tammy needed her mother with her. Connie took leave from her job for that purpose. Austin's father did not help out and has never done so (although father and son have met), Tammy said.
       The baby was allowed to leave the hospital after eight days - during which time Tammy was there almost constantly - but she and her mom had to remain in Denver for three months in all, never more than 30 minutes from the hospital, so they could get there in time if the heart was rejected.
       But things went well from the start. Tammy said the doctors were “already surprised” that Austin needed no extra oxygen after the operation and his number of medications was less than normal.
       When they returned to their Westside home, doctors urged life-long caution, because a major side effect of such transplants is a suppression of the body's immune system. Instructions included not playing in the dirt and minimizing public contact, as well as avoiding exposure to the sun (for fear of adverse effects to the long surgical scar on his chest).
       So she protected him like they told her, right? Wrong. “Honestly I didn't listen,” Tammy said. He went to public schools, and she didn't lay down activity limits. “I didn't know how much time he had, but I wanted him to be a kid, to be able to go out and play.”
       If that strategy was bad for the boy, the signs of it are yet to be seen. For example, of all her four children, “he's the one who gets sick the least, and we don't know why,” Tammy said.
       She did follow the instructions about giving Austin his prescribed medications and taking him to Children's Hospital for regular checkups. And, with the exception of two urgent times - age 2 when there was an aorta shrinkage issue and age 13 when he started feeling chest pains and had to be driven to Children's in an ambulance - the results have been routinely positive and his medical doses have been reduced.
       Fortunately, the medical expenses, which average about $4,000 a month (plus $5,000 for the annual checkup in Denver), have been covered by Colorado Medicaid, said Tammy, who works full-time in an office.
       The transplanted heart, which was supposed to last no more than five years and had shown signs of failure when he was 13, has not only kept pumping, it's started repairing itself. And the way it's been doing it - repairing on both sides - has once again astonished the Children's specialists. “New vessels and capillaries are taking over,” Tammy said. “The doctors had never seen that before on both sides. The cardiologists said to keep doing what we've been doing.”
       Austin accepts his fate, even though it technically means he'll have a coronary artery disease all his life. What he likes is that he can mostly live the way he wants. He works at King Soopers and is planning to attend Pikes Peak Community College, studying photography.
       One of his favorite hobbies is doing high-flying tricks on his BMX bicycle at a local park. “I can't watch,” Tammy said.
       Austin did point out that he eats healthy foods: “greens and stuff,” and stays in shape. But in addition to his activities, he has had body piercings and tattoos - another medical concern because of the immune-system issue. Yet neither of these has resulted in medical setbacks, either.
       “I understand where the doctors are coming from and what the studies have shown,” Austin said. “But my feeling is that I run the disease, I don't let it run me. Just because I have it, I'm not going to let it slow me down. I won't say I can't do it because of my heart. I can do it. I'll be fine.”

Westside Pioneer article