At this time last year, Toye Watts Jr. would never have imagined he’d be sick, let alone recovering from a heart transplant.
The 41-year-old dentist from Cross Plains was in good health. He’d never had any heart problems before, and he worked out regularly.
“Over time, I started noticing that I couldn’t exercise like I used to. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t walk much,” said Watts. “I noticed that at work I started to sweat and get tired very quickly.”
After a series of tests by different doctors, Watts was eventually diagnosed and treated for congestive heart failure.
“Heart disease does not run in my family. It was shocking,” Watts said.
His heart was definitely the problem, but the situation was much more serious than anyone realized.
“I’d be sleeping, and all of a sudden I’d wake up because my heart was pounding out of my chest, beating really, really fast for 10 seconds, and then it would just stop,” said Watts. “That happened three times in one night. So, in the morning, my wife and I got packed and said we’re going to Vanderbilt, we’re going to get some answers.”
When he got to Vanderbilt, he was immediately admitted.
“My heart was completely out of rhythm,” he said. “They wanted to correct that with a defibrillator pacemaker, so they put one in, and that didn’t work. My heart continued to fail, so they put a catheter in my neck so that they could infuse medicine directly into my heart. That didn’t work either.”
At that point, Watts was in the hospital for about a week, and outside the COVID-19 pandemic swarmed the nation and Tennessee. His wife was told she would have to leave the hospital, and only Watts could stay. Worse yet, he was going to need a heart transplant.
“Dr. Stevenson came into my room, and she said, ‘Get your wife on speaker phone. We need to discuss this,’ Watts said. “She said the best thing for you is to get you on the heart transplant list.
“When she stepped out of the room, my wife was crying on the phone, because she didn’t know when she was going to see me again. We didn’t know how this was going to turn out. We just knew that if I’m listed for a heart transplant, my current heart is useless.”
Watts started the process of getting on the transplant list immediately. He had a good shot at getting a heart quickly, because he was young and in good health. So, after testing negative for COVID-19, he had no choice but to sit back and wait.
“They told me that I would not be allowed to leave the hospital and come back,” Watts said. “I couldn’t go home and wait for a heart transplant, because the viral climate was getting worse. So, they decided to keep me there at the hospital. They said it could take a week. It could take a month. We don’t know.”
As luck would have it, a heart became available the night after he was put on the transplant list, and Watts was prepped for surgery the next morning. It was certainly an answer to their prayers, but now he was going into major surgery, and he couldn’t even see his family.
“My wife was not allowed to come to the hospital to see me before anesthesia because of the risk of COVID-19,” Watts said. “I was mainly afraid that my wife would have to live without me. That was my biggest concern. I wasn’t really scared to die.”
Watts’ surgery was a success. His new heart was beating inside his chest, but the COVID-19 pandemic still had him on lockdown at the hospital.
“I watched ABC News just so I could chart the spread of the virus, and it got a little frustrating because day by day more people were getting it, and more people were dying from it,” said Watts. “I didn’t initially think it would get this far. I thought that people would isolate. They did not. That was very frustrating, because my wife could not come to the hospital and see me.”
Watts said he missed his wife terribly, but he wasn’t alone.
“The nurses were a blessing to me,” he said. “They continued to provide me with care and conversation. They were very friendly. They would come in the room and chat with me when they could, and I really appreciated that. They were the only people that I had to talk to, and they knew that.”
The doctors and staff at Vanderbilt University Medical Center weren’t the only ones looking out for the Watts family. During his hospital stay, Watts received word that he’d been furloughed from work. It was irony at its best, since he wouldn’t be able to work for several months after the surgery anyway.
When word got out about his situation, the support started pouring in.
“Toye is a joy to know. He’s genuine, a lover of people with a servant’s spirit and loves to laugh,” said John Agee. “I cannot imagine anyone not liking Toye.”
Agee set up a Go Fund Me page with the hope to take some of the pressure off of them financially, and the turnout shocked everyone.
“More than 200 people contributed and passed the goal within five days. Even more have sent messages of love and encouragement,” said Agee.
“It’s incredible the way people are giving. It’s a complete blessing in disguise. We were not expecting it,” Watts said. “I’m just so appreciative. We’re going to be able to pay our bills. It’s going to be amazing to just be at home and completely focus on recovery.”
Watts was released from the hospital April 7, and just like everyone else is sheltering from COVID-19. He’s been ordered to stay home and isolate.
“I am to be gloved and masked at all times that I am ever outside, and I need to limit human interaction for at least three weeks,” Watts said.
That’s just fine with him. He has no plans to leave home for quite a while.
“Everyone just stay safe during this time,” he said. “Stay away from each other, so we can get through this.”