A New Heart for Father’s Day

A Long Island dad of two young boys now has a new heart—and was able to make it home in time for Father’s Day.

Chris Frey, now 38 years old, was born with a congenital heart defect and had underwent two major heart operations by the time he was a toddler. When he was born, the two major arteries to his heart were reversed, causing blood flow and oxygen deficiencies.

The heart problems and medications affected his growth. Chris is five feet tall, and weighs 115 pounds. The operations he had as a child left him with extensive scar tissue on his chest. And it left him with emotional pain that he tried to cover up with jokes or stories. “I was the ‘Danny DeVito’ of my class,” he said. “Always making jokes to cover up the pain.”

When he met his wife, Christine online, they realized they had both worked at the same restaurant in Commack. However, Chris had quit after one night. Another waiter suffered a massive heart attack and died—and it hit too close to home.

On Thanksgiving Day in 2020, Chris felt tired but put it out of his mind. But the next day a neighbor, a registered nurse, saw him and insisted on testing his oxygen with a finger sensor. The results were so alarming, she insisted he go to the hospital.

The ride to the hospital was the last thing Chris remembered for several weeks. At the hospital, he went into cardiac arrest and was essentially dead for 45 minutes. The doctors were able to bring him back, but he was in a coma for a week. As he came to, he was in an ambulance en route to The Mount Sinai Hospital. “I thought I was on line at McDonald’s,” Chris said.

But he was actually being referred to the care of Ali N. Zaidi, MD, Director of the Adult Congenital Heart Disease Center at Mount Sinai. For while Chris had followed up with pediatric congenital heart specialists into adulthood, he never formally saw an adult congenital heart specialist. Dr. Zaidi noted that this is common, and unfortunately, problems can be missed. “Congenital heart defects are more prevalent than cystic fibrosis,” said Dr. Zaidi. “But 90 percent of these patients are not seeing an adult heart disease specialist.”

The prognosis was serious—Chris needed a heart transplant. “Right away, I thought, ‘I’m going to die,’” he said. “You’re on the clock and time is ticking away. But my wife is a very strong person. She told me, ‘Everything is going to be fine. We’re going to get you a heart.’”

Chris had entered Mount Sinai on December 6, 2020. On January 25, 2021, a donor was found. Anelechi Anyanwu, MD, Vice Chair of Cardiothoracic Surgery at The Mount Sinai Hospital, performed the surgery after consultation with Anu Lala, MD, a leading specialist in advanced heart failure and transplantation and the rest of the team under the leadership of Donna Mancini, MD who is world-renowned in this field.

“Chris and I connected instantaneously and developed a treasured connection based on trust and understanding, that stemmed from the use of sensitive language when talking about disease and health,” said Dr. Lala. “No word is as negative as the world ‘failure.’ Particularly when caring for young patients, speaking about heart function as opposed to failure, allows for enhanced receptivity and trust. We need to understand that some patients may be affected by the term ‘failure’ and delay or avoid care altogether.”

After an 18 ½ hour procedure, he had a new heart. But Chris’s road to recovery was long. Altogether, he spent over 100 days in the hospital. He missed Christmas, New Year’s, his wedding anniversary, his wife’s birthday, and both his sons’ birthdays.

But on March 17, 2021, Chris finally went home—just in time for Father’s Day. “So far the heart is doing well and I’m doing well,” said Chris. “And I’m so grateful to be here. I was always scared to tell anyone how I felt because I felt if I do, I’m going to die.”

“Chris’s story reminds us to tune in and be aware of when your body is trying to tell you something,” said Dr. Lala. “I think he wanted focus on the normalcy of his life—and this came as a sudden jolt or reminder.  And it gives me great joy to see him enjoying his beautiful family, celebrating Father's Day now several months after transplant."

Dr. Zaidi has always been focused on educating patients with congenital heart disease and their families that it is important to transition to appropriate adult care as they become young adults. On June 24, 2021, Dr. Zaidi was honored at the Hamptons Heart Ball for his efforts.

“We need patients and their families to be advocates for themselves, so that they may reach all their goals in life.” said Dr. Zaidi.

And on Father’s Day 2021, that meant that Chris Frey was able to play in the yard with his two sons and be with family once again.