Akins, 56, was in his early 40s when doctors diagnosed him with a near-fatal virus called sarcoidosis that infected his heart and left it with only 10 percent output. The cause of the virus is unknown and there is no cure.
“I would need a transplant to survive,” Akins explained. “It soon sent me spiraling into congestive heart failure with severe fatigue. For the next 18 months after my diagnosis, I struggled to breathe, and my condition deteriorated to the point where I dreaded even walking up the stairs in my home. I would sit for hours in my recliner using all my might just to breathe. My wife, Gina, and I would make weekly and bi-weekly trips to Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, to see the transplant doctors and get routine testing done. Many times I would have to stay in intensive care for up to 10 days to get the fluid off my lungs and get me stable enough to come back home.”
The ordeal went on for about five months, according to Akins, until Sept. 19, 2003, when the family received a phone call that changed their lives.
“That’s when I got a call from the transplant doctors that a heart had been found that was a good match for me,” he said. “I had roughly three hours to get to Vanderbilt, get admitted and get ready for the operation. We already had our bags packed for months waiting for this special call, so Gina, my youngest son, Reid, and I were out the door in just a matter of minutes.”
While driving, calls were made to his oldest son, Chad, other family members and close friends, who formed a support group. Loved ones made arrangements to be there for the family.
“We arrived at the hospital at just before midnight,” Akins recalled. “The next several hours were the hardest for my family and the easiest for me. My family had the fear they may never see me again and thought of what could happen. But for me it was like getting a winning lottery ticket! I knew this was the fix that I needed to get back to were I was just several months before.”
The operation on Sept. 20 went perfect. Akins said he was out in a few hours to be greeted by many family members and friends.
“The first thing I noticed was that I could feel my heart beating for the first time in months!” he said. “It was like turning back time and getting my old life back! I didn’t realize how bad I had gotten until I got my new heart. It was like a miracle. I was a new man over night. The very next day I was walking the halls of the hospital.”
Although his organ transplant was a success, Akins admits, “I cannot say that these past 10 years, have been perfect health wise, because I was on so much heavy steroids to make sure that the virus was gone, that some of my joints have suffered. I had to have both hips replaced and may have to get my knees done in the future. But these are simple things compared to the alternative I was looking at 10 years ago. Now I wake up every morning looking forward to a new day. I thank God everyday! You don’t take anything for granted any more. I have a whole different outlook on life because I prioritize things differently. Work comes last on the list. Your family comes first.”
Akins said he shares his experience with others, answering the most common question of those in similar need of an organ transplant.
“A lot of people ask how bad do you have to be before you can get an organ transplant,” he said. “People on the transplant list really don’t know how long they’ll have to wait before they can get an organ. There is a list of things you have to qualify for. My doctor explained it to me this way — he said it’s just like a car engine. They’re going to try and get as much miles out of that old engine before they have to put in a new one. That’s what they did on me. They knew exactly where I was along the line. They said it’s time where they will either have to put me on a machine to pump my blood or I was going to need a transplant. I was blessed to get a transplant real quick.”
Because of his heart transplant Akins said he has been able to experience many blessings in life, including seeing both his sons grow up to become successful young men.
“Gina and I have done some traveling and are about to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary! I get to see my parents and brothers more often. Plus, I rode my motorcycle all over the United States and spread the word about organ donation,” Akins said. “My 10-year anniversary coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Chickamauga battle. I am looking forward to attending the battle re-enactments that weekend. I will also plan a motorcycle trip sometime later down to Texas, and New Mexico.”
Gina, added, “He has done exceptionally well since the transplant, despite having both hips replaced within the past seven years. He has a wonderful outlook on life and is such an inspiration to everyone diagnosed with congestive heart failure, cardiomyopathy and other health conditions. Several people have contacted Terry over the years for advice, surgery information and options as well as lots of reassurance.”
“If there is one thing I want people to know it’s that you can live a normal life after transplant,” Akins said. “I hope that by doing the things I do, I can give hope to people waiting for transplants, and also encourage people to consider organ donation. It’s hard to think about being in a position to donate your organs or your loved one’s organs. But if you’re ever in that position, it’s nice to know that something good can come out of it. I know I would not be here right now if not for organ donation.”
Currently, 119,491 people are waiting for an organ in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Services, 18 people will die each day waiting for an organ and one organ donor can save up to 8 lives
For further information about organ donations, visit www.organdonor.gov to find out more about organ donation.