Michael Pitter remembers the day that changed his life — and his heart.
Despite living with chest pains and shortness of breath for more than a month, on May 7, 2015, Pitter was determined to take a final for a class at Polk State.
He recalls not being able to walk a normal speed, holding his chest, and feeling woozy as he trekked the campus. He made it in time to take the exam – and he got a B. But what would happen in the following hours would put his education on hold.
“I passed my final, I was happy,” Pitter said, “but a friend kept telling me I needed to go to the emergency room for the way I was feeling physically.”
Luckily, he did.
Pitter went to Winter Haven Hospital and was immediately flown to Tampa General Hospital, where he was told that if he had waited two more hours, it would have been too late. The percentage of blood leaving his heart each time it would pump, called the ejection fraction, was 2 percent. A healthy heart’s ejection fraction is between 50 percent and 75 percent.
He went into surgery and was fitted with a ventricular assist device (VAD) – a mechanical pump used to support heart function and blood flow in people with weakened hearts.
But why was the seemingly normal and healthy 21-year-old’s heart weakened? Pitter says doctors aren’t sure to this day.
“I’ve always worked out, I eat well, and there isn’t any history of heart problems in my family,” Pitter said. “It was a big shock – I had never had surgery or been so sick.”
He spent a month in the hospital, where he lost 30 pounds.
Doctors hoped Pitter’s heart would regain strength to allow them to remove the VAD and return Pitter to a normal life.
Although he returned to work at the Publix Deli, he didn’t return to classes at Polk State because of the amount of time he had to spend in doctors’ offices and the unpredictability of his health.
“I always said I would go back to school as soon as I was better.”
“It would have been too risky – I didn’t want something to happen that would cause me to have to drop out of courses,” Pitter said. “I always said I would go back to school as soon as I was better.”
But first, his heart got worse.
He was placed on a waiting list for a transplant.
“The doctor told me I would have at least a year until a heart was ready for me and that I would have plenty of time to mentally prepare myself,” Pitter said.
Two weeks later in April 2016, however, Pitter was undergoing a heart transplant.
The procedure went smoothly and within a day he was walking. Within a week, he was back at the gym. And by August, he was enrolled in classes at Polk State again – this time with an idea of what career he wants to pursue.
“This whole experience gave me a new take on life – not only in a way that makes me value how precious life is,” Pitter said. “It also showed me what I want to do with my life – help people.”
Pitter explained that when he first enrolled at Polk State in August 2013, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. Now, he wants to be a nurse.
“Watching the way the nurses carried themselves in the hospital and how they genuinely cared about their patients showed me that if I’m going to do a job, I want to be contributing to society and helping people through difficult times,” Pitter said, “because people helped me through my difficult time.”
As for the family of the donor who gave him his heart, Pitter says he plans to reach out to them in the future once he has accomplished something great with his life that they can be proud of.
Pitter will check one accomplishment off his list on Dec. 14, when he graduates with his Associate in Arts degree from Polk State. The College’s 117th commencement ceremony will be from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the RP Funding Center, 701 W. Lime St. in Lakeland.
Pitter plans to further his education and apply to Polk State’s Nursing program.
As for his health, he’s doing well.
Some of his dozen medications give him side effects, such as trembling hands, stomach pains, and dizzy spells.
“But I’ve hardly gotten sick and it’s nothing I can’t handle,” Pitter said. “My biggest worry was that it would feel like a part of me would be missing after the heart transplant.”
“Instead, I feel like I did before I got sick,” he said. “I feel very lucky.”