Hilliard resident Austin Mooney celebrating a new year with a new heart and lungs
Austin Mooney doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions. Rather, he spends time in prayer and then writes down what comes to mind.
A year ago, he and his wife, Larisa, shared their expectations for 2020.
“Hers was that there would be a lot of change, and it would be a busy, stressful year, but you’re going to overcome it,” he said. “And mine was that it was going to be a year of healing.”
His voice is quiet and raspy, a vestige of him spending more than four months on a ventilator after undergoing a heart and double-lung transplant in June, followed by near-fatal complications.
“We look back now, and we’re like, 'Thank you, Lord,’ ” he said, sitting in the living room of his parents’ home in Hilliard. “I got the healing part. I just didn’t think it would take a year.”
Mooney, 25, went to Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center for his transplant June 20 and didn't come home until Dec. 3.
In between, he endured bouts of pneumonia, septic shock and a condition that made it difficult for his body to absorb nutrients. At one point, the 160-pound man had shrunk to 85 pounds (“a skeleton,” Larisa Mooney said).
And, of course, all of this occurred amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The fact that he even received the transplant was “a miracle,” said Steve Mooney, his father. Austin was desperately sick when he went on the transplant list, and his family wasn’t sure he would survive what they had anticipated would be a months-long wait for a suitable donor.
Instead, Austin got the call two days after going on the list. Earlier that same day, he and Larisa were discussing plans for his funeral.
“The writing was on the wall at that point,” his wife said. “Everything was failing, and all his organs were shutting down.”
Given that, she couldn’t help but marvel at “how far he’s come. It amazes me. He has fought so hard to be here.”
Steve and Lisa Mooney know better than anyone how hard Austin has fought – and for how long.
'Just be a normal boy’
All seemed fine at Mooney's birth in January 1995. But three months later, he started turning blue and was rushed to Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Doctors discovered a congenital heart defect. Basically, as his mother puts it, “his heart was plumbed wrong.” Several veins that connect the lungs to the heart were attached to the wrong side of his heart.
Mooney had open-heart surgery. At age 2, his parents were told their son had developed pulmonary hypertension, or high blood pressure in the arteries between the heart and lungs, and that he might not survive another year.
“We cried on the way home,” Lisa Mooney said. “We thought the best thing we could do is just let him do as much as he could possibly do, whatever that was – just be a normal boy.”
Two years later, 4-year-old Austin woke up from a nap and told his mom he had talked to God. She asked him what God had said to him.
The boy replied that God had said, “Austin, grow big and strong.”
And for the next 10 years, he did just that, with no symptoms.
“They called me a medical miracle,” he said. “I was lucky I had my whole childhood where I could just be a kid.”
That ended at age 14, when the pulmonary hypertension symptoms surfaced and he started on a series of medications. At one point, he had a pacemaker installed and, later, a defibrillator.
But the medications seemed to work well. He graduated from Dublin Scioto High School in 2013 and dabbled in taking religion courses at Ohio Christian University and Ohio State University.
In 2017, he and Larisa, an Ohio State graduate living in Columbus, met through Christian Mingle, an online dating website. They were married in July 2019.
The newlyweds were living near New York City late last year (Larisa had a teaching job in the city) when Austin’s health began to decline. Doctors determined that Remodulin, the drug that had kept him relatively healthy for years, had lost its effectiveness.
A very rare procedure
Austin flew home to Columbus in January and spent several weeks at the OSU Wexner Medical Center undergoing tests and evaluation.
It was then that doctors raised the issue of having the heart and double-lung transplant. Dr. Steve Kirkby, a transplant pulmonologist who was part of Mooney’s care team, said such procedures are very rare, with between 25 and 50 performed worldwide each year.
Mooney’s procedure was only the second one performed at OSU Wexner Medical Center. The first was in 2005.
“It’s rare to have the combination of problems Austin had, where there’s damage done to both the heart and the lungs that necessitates doing a transplant together,” Kirkby said.
Mooney said that despite the drastic-sounding news, he accepted it relatively well.
“I knew that keeping my heart would not have been to my benefit, and I wanted to get rid of my defibrillator,” he said. “I was calm with it.”
COVID-19 hit while he still was doing testing. That canceled several appointments and delayed his efforts to get on the transplant list.
By the time he did get on the list, his body was so oxygen-deprived that his skin was a reddish-purple, “like a sunburn,” his wife said.
That the call informing him a suitable donor had been found came after just two days was another miracle, Steve Mooney said. The heart and lungs needed to come from the same donor, with the same blood type and same general body type, he said.
Mooney's June 21 surgery lasted nine hours.
Immediately after the family was allowed to see him post-surgery, Steve Mooney was struck by how many tubes were coming out of his son.
“I said to a doctor, `There must be 25 or 30 of them,’” he said, “and the doctor said, `Actually, there’s 42.’ ”
But Lisa Mooney was amazed that Austin’s skin tone already was a normal, healthy pink again.
That would be about the only normal aspect of the next five-plus months as he battled a series of life-threatening complications.
In between all of that, he had to re-learn how to breathe.
“My whole life, I had PH (pulmonary hypertension), so I always had shallow breathing,” he said. “It took so long to convince my body that I had new lungs and I no longer had to breathe like I had PH. Taking deep breaths was foreign to me.”
Because of the pandemic, visitors were limited to one a day. But the Mooneys are proud that a family member was with Austin for every one of the 167 days he was hospitalized.
On Dec. 3, Wexner Medical Center nurses, doctors and hospital staff lined the hallways and applauded as Mooney was wheeled out, headed home.
Healing and looking ahead
The banner sign in the front yard of the Mooneys’ home reads, “Welcome Home Austin!” It remains up because even after a few weeks, it’s still worth celebrating.
Christmas was a perfect opportunity for that, and Steve Mooney jokes that his son was spoiled that day.
“You got a gift or two, I think, didn’t you?” Steve said, laughing in the living room. “This whole area was piled high. Everybody went overboard.”
Although Mooney still is not close to 100%, he slowly is regaining strength – and weight. He has no diet restrictions and has added about 25 pounds from his low of 85. He can do the stairs in his parents’ home.
“He has overcome a tremendous number of early challenges, and I’m thrilled with the progress that he’s made,” Kirkby said. “Like any transplant recipient, he’s going to have a lifelong need for immuno-suppressent medication and will have a lifelong risk of infection.
“But I’m very optimistic that Austin is going to have a great quality of life.”
Part of that process is a focus on his marriage. He and Larisa had been married only about 6 months when the transplant news hit.
Austin credited Larisa for being an "amazing" caregiver. Larisa said that through it all, Austin “made sure I had flowers for our anniversary and spoiled me on my birthday, even though he was in the hospital.”
The couple are looking forward to moving out of his parents’ house. Austin might resume college courses at some point, possibly continuing to pursue a career in ministry, but he’s not sure.
He said he is looking forward to things like going to the park, getting ice cream or going out for pizza.
“I have never not been sick my whole life, so I just have a new perspective on life,” he said. “And I owe my wife a vacation.”
And as the new year approached, Larisa and Austin began praying to discern what might be ahead for them in 2021.
“One goal is we want stability and to put down roots somewhere,” Austin said. “It has been a roller-coaster ride. But we don’t know. We’re still praying, and whatever God has, we’ll take.”