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Greg Potter's Change of Heart

Thanks to the ultimate gift from a stranger, Greg Potter is working, raising his family, and trying to improve his golf game. It might sound unremarkable until you consider the alternative.

by Susan Peery

Greg '85 and Linda '88 Potter overlapped at Keene State in 1985, but never met until the late 1990s, after Greg tore his ACL skiing and went to a doctor in Enfield, NH, where Linda (a psychology major) worked. They married in 2000 and soon bought a house in New London and had their first child, Emmy, in 2002.

Greg, an industrial technology and management major, worked at the Stahlman Group, a firm that designs large buildings – bottling plants, dairies, breweries – for the food and beverage industry. He'd been at Stahlman (located in New London until the company moved to Concord in January 2006) since graduating from Keene State and had many friends there, including a fellow KSC alum. His parents (Margaret and Paul Potter), grandmother (Mary Griswold), and sister (Mary Potter Olds) were all KSC grads too.

Potter family photo courtesy Linda Potter '88

Greg's family visited him in the hospital in Boston as he awaited a new heart.

In the summer of 2006, Greg noticed he felt tired all the time. Carrying their new baby daughter, Katie, in her car seat wore him out. At night, he had a bad cough. Greg was a guy who normally went to the gym every weekday on his lunch hour and walked the golf course for 18 holes, so he was puzzled. "I thought I was just getting out of shape," Greg said. "I even had to give up playing golf."

An initial medical consult with his family doctor in New London, NH, raised the possibility of asthma or allergies, even pneumonia, reasonable assumptions. But Greg did not respond to medications for those conditions. His doctor decided on further testing.

"I knew Greg was off," said Linda. But the lab results shocked both of them. They showed that Greg had a serious cardiac issue, and his doctor immediately had him transported to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in nearby Lebanon. Greg's heart was functioning at only 10 to 15 percent of normal. A heart catheterization revealed no blockages. He was in congestive heart failure, and no one knew why. They gave it a name: idiopathic cardiomyopathy.

Greg, an unflappable engineer who even today doesn't seem overly fazed by his medical experiences, simply figured he would take his doctor's advice and get better. Linda knew enough to be scared. (She had worked in a medical office, and, ironically, had had a heart problem and received a pacemaker the year before they were married.)

Greg's doctor put him on medications that seemed to help for a while. Greg kept working, telecommuting from home if he didn't feel well. But by early 2008, Linda could see he was going downhill. Their cardiologist at DHMC admitted him and ordered a heart biopsy.

At Greg's next appointment, the Potters heard bad news. The heart biopsy had found amyloid, a protein that causes stiffening of the heart walls, and the prognosis was poor. A hematologist/oncologist joined the medical team and told Greg that, in addition to a heart transplant, he needed a stem-cell transplant, but he was probably too sick to get it. The doctors gave Greg a defibrillator and started calling colleagues all around the country to get their recommendations.

"We went home thinking, ‘This is it,'" Linda said. Their daughters, then 5 and 2, were too young to understand what was going on. Two days later, Greg's cardiologist at DHMC called to say he'd found two hospitals that could help Greg – the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. The next day Greg was flown to Boston and almost immediately put on the regional organ donor list in the "most critical" classification.

"Mass General was huge, and so busy at all hours," Greg remembered. "I thought I'd have to get both stem cell and heart transplants. I met someone there who had had both transplants, as well as several others who had had heart transplants. It was very reassuring."

Linda stayed in Winchester, MA, with Greg's best friends from high school, and their parents took care of Katie and Emmy in New London. The next two months brought more setbacks while they waited for a heart.

Greg had to lay flat on his back at all times, hooked up to a balloon pump that helped his failing heart. He lost weight and muscle, going as low as 140 pounds on his 6-foot, 1-inch frame. Linda became a pro at driving in Boston traffic.

Greg says it wasn't all bad: "The Celtics won the championship while I was waiting for a heart, and I could watch all the games. Baseball games, too. At night, the interns would come into my room and watch with me. My doctor gave me a signed Red Sox baseball, and I got a letter from coach Terry Francona. [Red Sox pitcher] Jon Lester had been treated for cancer at MGH in 2006, and the Red Sox reach out to patients there."

Linda brought the girls down to visit Greg, a big boost for him. The nurses and doctors demystified the hospital equipment and made Emmy and Katie feel comfortable.

Linda also started calling old friends to let them know how sick Greg was. ("Greg wasn't too thrilled with me for doing that," she says.)

Photo courtesy Linda Potter '88

Stahlman Group colleagues and friends painted the Potters' house while Greg was in the hospital.

Two of his friends from KSC, Bob Reichart '85 and Steve Bucknam '85, brought him a KSC cap from their senior week. His Stahlman colleagues showed up at his bedside with a surprise slide show documenting a painting party at the Potters' house. His friends, including KSC classmate Joe Trombley, had spent a weekend painting the exterior of the house, knocking this big chore off Greg's to-do list. They also came over regularly to mow the lawn and take out the trash. People in New London – even people Greg and Linda didn't know – offered to help. Their church rallied around them.

Day after day, Greg and Linda waited for a heart. "Greg was very quiet and focused," Linda said. "I was on autopilot, I think." When she got to the hospital on the morning of July 8, 2008, she noticed that his breakfast had been held back. Greg said there might be a heart, but not to get her hopes up. They waited all day. He was taken to surgery around 11 p.m.

"The surgery began at 2 a.m. on July 9," Linda said. "Two of Greg's best friends waited all night with me. I didn't know anything until 9:30 a.m., when the surgeon came out to tell me that the surgery had gone well. Greg was the second heart transplant of the night." The diehard Red Sox fan had the heart of a young man from New York.

The next month at MGH was devoted to recovery. Greg had to learn to sit up, stand, and walk. The nurses and physical therapists worked with him every day. Greg was determined to be home by Katie's third birthday. He and Linda made it home in time for her birthday dinner.

Greg says it wasn't all bad: "The Celtics won the championship while I was waiting for a heart, and I could watch all the games. Baseball games, too. At night, the interns would come into my room and watch with me."

Life with a New Heart

Greg went back to work that fall. He is now down to about 20 anti-rejection and other pills a day, he says. He has had a few ups and downs, but (knock on wood) has not needed the stem-cell transplant. Doctors now think his heart disease was caused by a virus.

Emmy talked to her first-grade class last year about what happened to her daddy, reassuring her classmates that it was really rare.

In 2009, Greg drove the Attitude of Gratitude organ donor car in the New London Hospital Days parade, and last fall he completed the American Heart Walk in Boston. He says he is not golfing as well as he'd like to, but he's getting back into condition.

Linda's license plate reads: ORGDONR. Having been on the receiving end of a donated organ, Greg and Linda hope to raise awareness and encourage people to think about donating their organs or tissue in the event of their demise, inevitable for us all, and to talk to family members and their doctors about their wishes.

More than 100,000 people are on organ donor lists in the United States today, awaiting that gift of life.