This was not how Denzel Irvin expected March 29 to pass.
The 26-year-old personal trainer had clients lined up at his training facility in Charlotte, North Carolina. After exhausting his eligibility to play football at the University of Charlotte, he was making people better.
The former Winter Garden Foundation Academy standout even had several NFL players on his client list. He was in great shape, or so he thought.
That March day, Irvin was sprawled on the floor of his Charlotte apartment. He called Lauren Bryant, his former girlfriend and mother of his 5-year-old daughter Maya, asking her to take him to the hospital. He left his door ajar because he knew he couldn’t answer it.
For years playing football at the Foundation and in Charlotte, Irvin never had to deal with injuries. Now he felt helpless.
“I was with a client at the gym and I wasn’t feeling well,” Irvin said. “I was like, ‘I have to go home.’ I had this client at 5 a.m., and by 5 a.m. I had vomited at least 10 times but went to practice anyway.
“About halfway through, I was like, ‘No, I can’t do this.’ So I drove home I knew I couldn’t drive so I called Maya’s mom to pick me up there because I felt like I was going to pass out, what I have done.
“I thought I had COVID, honestly. I had COVID once before, last year, and had the same symptoms,” Irvin said. “I thought it was just a more serious case.”
Irvin had to be transferred by ambulance from a Charlotte hospital to Atrium Health at Carolinas Medical Center, known for its cardiologists and heart transplant success.
As doctors tried to figure out what was wrong two weeks into his hospital stay, Irvin suffered a stroke.
“They still don’t know what was wrong with me. They do genetic testing. They were saying this term called non-compaction syndrome, which is genetic and it’s like having a hole in your heart,” Irvin said. “They checked me all over and everything came back negative. They tested me for COVID and it was negative.
“Finally they said it was the fact that I never rested and it was due to stress because I was going and going and not resting. That was their best assessment. I was always on the go.
Non-compaction syndrome is a disorder of the heart muscle in the left ventricle, which helps the heart pump blood, and it occurs when the muscle does not grow properly. Doctors would rely on this diagnosis.
In the end, the prognosis was simple: he needed a heart transplant, and the sooner the better.
Through it all, Irvin said he never contemplated death.
“All the time I knew I was going to make it,” Irvin said. “For me, it felt like it was happening for a reason, like for a bigger purpose, so I never doubted it at all.”
He had plenty to fight for. There was his five-year-old daughter, Maya Faith Irvin, and her mother; twin brother Darius Irvin, who also played at Foundation and Charlotte; close friend Ben DeLuca, who is a notable former Bishop Moore and Charlotte and Maya’s godfather; and his parents, Gwendolyn and Djuan Irvin.
And, of course, Irvin said, there was his faith in God.
“I was a little nervous, but I never got scared,” Irvin said. “I had my faith and my parents, they made a lot of difference, and I also thought a lot about my daughter. My family never left. They were always there for me.
“I thought of God every time I was in pain and I thought of my daughter and literally said her name out loud over and over again. It took me to another place where I didn’t think about my pain. I feel like it was largely mental because I could have panicked and had a lot of bad consequences, so I never panicked.
He received his donor heart quickly, but a lot happened before he finally arrived.
“I was put on a machine called the ECMO machine,” Irvin said. “They put it in an artery in my groin and this machine sucks blood into the machine, oxygen and pushes the blood back into my heart.
“It’s a very critical machine and if you’re on that machine, you become a status 1 on the transplant list, which means you’re at the very top. Before that, I was a status 2.”
The machine, which facilitates oxygenation of the extracorporeal membrane, is likened to a heart-lung bypass machine used in open-heart surgeries. As it pumps and oxygenates the blood outside the patient’s body, the heart and lungs can rest.
“The ECMO machine sounded like a car engine and it was very loud,” Irvin said.
During his nearly week-long stint at Status 2, Irvin was on another device called the Ball Pump. He went through four of these devices because they kept exploding.
“Then my heart started to fail again, so they told me if I stayed on the ball pump my chances of survival would be slim,” Irvin said. “I was on it for six days and stabilized, but then my heart started to give out again.
“The ECMO machine, I was only on it for two days, and after that second day, I got my heart out.”
His donor heart arrived on April 25 and after a six-hour operation he was recovering for almost two days.
“I woke up on April 27 from the sedation of the operation and was discharged on May 3 … six days after the operation,” Irvin said. “They told me it was going to take months. But I’m a coach, so I was always doing a little bit more and pushing myself a little bit harder.
“I was healthy and I was young and all of those things, and God, of course, were all factors in my success. I was in terrible pain when I woke up and I had this breathing tube in my neck and I’m awake. It was crazy.”
It had been less than a month since Irvin passed out after leaving his training facility early, and he already had a new heart.
“It’s unreal, like a miracle,” Irvin said. “You would have thought I would be in there for two, three, four months, but God had other plans,” Irvin said.
Irvin has many words to describe how he feels now.
“Blessed, grateful, humbled…a combination of those things. Lots of gratitude,” Irvin said. people because my immune system is weakened… my body can reject this heart at any time.
“So I’m in quarantine now and will be on a low sodium diet for the rest of my life and I have to take these drugs for the rest of my life as well.”
The anti-rejection drugs are tacrolimus (Prograf) and CellCept and he takes a weight-reducing steroid similar to prednisone.
“I lost about 40 pounds in just one month,” Irvin said. “But it feels so good to be outside now. Just the things you take for granted like being in bed, taking a shower, eating regular food that isn’t hospital food, not being woken up every two hours to take your vital signs and do blood tests.
“It’s good. I’m so grateful to be home.
However, he is not quite home yet. He is staying at a hotel in Charlotte until he has less travel to do for doctor visits. Eventually, he will return to Orlando.
“I have to go once a week for two months, to biopsy my heart, so it didn’t make sense to go back to Florida when I had to come back here every week,” Irvin said. “Then for the next two months it’s every other week and then once a month.”
It’s been about 45 days since he first felt ill and he has a new heart, a new breath of life and a new perspective.
He posts inspirational messages on social media daily. There was a lot of support from those around him.
DeLuca, who spent last season on the practice squad with the Los Angeles Chargers, was a constant visitor.
“He’s already started training and walking the miles, LOL,” DeLuca texted from Los Angeles, where he’s attending the Chargers’ rookie mini-camp. “He’s doing great, all things considered.”
DeLuca described his feelings when he first heard about his friend’s illness.
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“It was one of those feelings that you can’t really describe. My heart just ached for him,” DeLuca texted. “You are dealing with all kinds of thoughts and emotions. I just wanted to make sure I was there for him and encouraged him in the faith.
Irvin appreciates the support and friendship.
“He’s my guy. He came to see me a lot and he bought me a PlayStation. He’s just a good guy,” he said of DeLuca. a lot of help. During my physiotherapy, I was walking around the intensive care unit and I saw all these patients without families and it was so sad.
Not Irvin. His parents rarely left him.
And of course there was Maya. There’s a reason Faith is her middle name. Irvin leaned on his like a crutch and it kept him strong.
“I’m so blessed,” he said.
This article originally appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Chris Hays covers high school football and college football recruiting for the Sentinel. He can be reached at [email protected].