Twenty years after his heart transplant, Jesse Galle is still going strong
In 2004, I was working on a book about people who came from all over the country and the world to run the famous Rocky Steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, just as Sylvester Stallone did in the movie Rocky. I partnered with my friend and photographer Tom Gralish. We would just wait at the steps and see who showed up.
On a beautiful fall day, we met Jesse Galle. At age 19, in the year 2000, Jesse had received a heart transplant at Temple University Hospital. He was at the museum steps that morning in 2004, four years post-transplant, running the steps, thrusting his hands in the air at the top, to celebrate his survival, his new heart, his hopes and dreams and gratitude. He and friends had attended a fundraising walk sponsored by the Gift of Life, the donor organization that procured his new heart, and he finished the event with a celebration at the top. As with so many, running the steps that day for Jesse became a physical expression of his triumph, his overcoming.
Over the years, I have often thought about Jesse, along with several other memorable people I met and wrote about in the book. But from the time I took the job at The Lewis Katz School of Medicine in 2016, directing the narrative medicine program, I thought I should catch up with Jesse, ask him more about his transplant at Temple, see how he’s doing, and write a follow up story.
We Zoomed recently. He’s living in Brooklyn now, working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, a research program manager, managing clinical trials. He was wearing a Phillies cap when we spoke.
He said he had his 20th anniversary of his new heart on September 8, 2020. Every year on that date, he said, “I take a day to myself and just reflect on what I went through, and kind of think about donor family and that whole situation. I was going to plan a big trip last fall with friends. then the pandemic hit. That's on hold for now. I'm still immune-compromised so I need to be careful with Covid.” He has received the Pfizer vaccine.
He also celebrated his 40th birthday in November. “I've lived with the transplanted heart longer than my original one,” he said. “That's kind of a crazy thought.”
Jesse is from Bethlehem. He had just finished his first year of college at Pitt and was working in a summer camp. He was feeling tired and rundown, exhausted really, in July of 2000, and his doctors thought it was an ulcer. But he got worse. His brother was getting married on August 5. 2000, and Jesse was supposed to be an usher. The day before the wedding, lying in his bed, coughing up blood, he went to Muhlenberg Hospital, hoping to get some medicine to get him through the wedding. Doctors at Muhlenberg found him to be in heart failure and he was rushed to Temple University Hospital. He missed his brother’s wedding, and so did his parents, who were at his bedside.
Jesse had cardiomyopathy – a virus had attacked his heart. No one knew why, but his heart was functioning at less than 10 percent capacity. He would die without a heart transplant. He was transferred to the heart transplant unit, then on the 7th floor of Temple Hospital, and known as the “Heart Transplant Hotel.” In those days, patients lived on the unit until they received a transplant or died waiting.
“They used to call me the kid,” Jesse recalled. “I was by far the youngest person there. I have vivid memories of that time.
“I was by far the youngest, and I stayed up the latest,” he added. “My roommate was in his 50s, so I’m sharing a hospital room with a 50-year old guy. The nurses were wonderful. I like to joke around and I think the nurses liked me. The night nurses let me come in and watch movies. Because of my experience there I have such a love for nurses. And the phlebotomist. the fellows. the physicians. The care I got was great.”
Jesse was in Temple for 35 days before he got a heart on September 9, 2000.
“I had a rarer blood type that helped,” he said in terms of getting an available heart. “I'm still alive after twenty years. I think I got a good match”
All he knows about his donor is that he or she died in an accident.
At the time I met Jesse in 2004, he told me, “I’m not sure what I want to do with my life. I hope whatever it is, I will do it with conviction and enthusiasm.”
He said he’d tried hard to fulfill that pledge.
I've been able to do everything that I've wanted to do,” he said. After his transplant, he transferred from Pitt to Temple, to be close to home and to his doctors for follow-ups. At Temple, he spent a semester in London, and after graduating he traveled to Europe and Hawaii. He took a trip years ago to Alaska with his brothers, fishing and camping in middle of nowhere, hiking on a glacier. He’s paraglided off the Alps.
He’s enjoyed the New York life for many years, and for years did improv comedy. He says now that he’s 40, like anyone else, he’s slowed down. He said he really enjoys his job at Sloan Kettering. “My focus is the biospecimen and genetic research,” he said. He believes it is meaningful work.
He still takes medicine every morning and evening for his heart, he says, “and that’s my lifeline.” Since moving to New York, he’s been getting his follow-up care at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and feels he’s in excellent hands with his doctors and support team there.
He’s living a pretty normal life, he says, and is grateful for it. “It’s not something I wanted to be defined by,” Jesse said of his heart transplant, adding, “I'm happy to talk about it with anyone. Dating for instance. It's not the first thing I talk about. If the relationship starts to progress, then it will come up. I've had long term relationships.”
Back when I met him in 2004, Jesse said he was determined to live his life without fear, and he believes for the most part, he has.
“I still like to think that I have the mindset,” he says. “There are worries now that I didn’t have then. Now it's long-term survival. Right now, I'm good. I still feel good. There’s probably a good chance that I'll need a second heart at some point. I don't know when that will be. I have a good relationship with my doctor. She's wonderful. We keep an eye on things.”
Jesse’s brother and family live in Philadelphia, and before the pandemic, he visited regularly.
“I would often bring friends, girls I was dating” he said, “to the Rocky Steps.”
Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org