SALT LAKE CITY — Ben Burrup still remembers the very first time he felt symptoms from the cardiomyopathy that would turn his life upside down.
It was December 2014, and Burrup was out riding ATVs with some friends when he felt his heart noticeably racing.
"I never gave it a second thought," he recalls. "I just kind of let it go by."
But the racing persisted, and by that night, Burrup had checked himself into the emergency room.
The incident began Burrup's lengthy struggle to fight back against his cardiomyopathy — a disease affecting a person's heart muscles that can lead to heart failure — through intensive surgery, the implanting of a defribillator, and the installation of what is called a left ventricular assist device that kept his heart functional.
It was a stunning ordeal to have to endure for Burrup, of Herriman, who otherwise had enjoyed good health.
"To go through your first surgery being an open heart surgery was quite a doozy for me," he told reporters.
In February 2018, Burrup's life again changed forever when he received his heart transplant.
"To go through a near-death experience, heart failure, and live with that for a number of years, and then come out on the other side … the difference in my life from before … always being tired and never having the energy to do anything, to now, is night and day," he said.
On Friday, Burrup was on hand to share his success story at University of Utah Hospital, where the medical professionals who have facilitated his recovery celebrated what was a record-breaking year at the U. for organ transplants performed.
In 2018, University Hospital completed 255 transplants, its most ever and 31 more than in 2017.
That figure counts the number of transplanted "solid organs," which are internal organs such as the heart, liver, lungs, liver, kidneys and pancreas.
"Today we acknowledge the fact that not only did we have a record of thoracic and abdominal transplant recipients, but (also) … everybody’s pretty proud that our patients are doing well," said Dr. Robin Kim, chief of the Division of Transplantation and Advanced Hepatobiliary Surgery at the hospital.
"We’ve built this (transplantation) program over decades — we rely and stand on the shoulders of the people who founded the programs," he said. "I think that is a reason why we can come and talk about the good things that have happened over the past year."
Kim said while medical professionals are reasonable to take a victory lap to celebrate such an encouraging year's worth of results, it is even more important "to talk about the fact that our programs are growing because of donors."
"We've relied on donors who have given generously," he said.
Kim said the U. has also escalated its efforts to more frequently facilitate "a different kind of donation" — that of living donors. Since 2016, the number of living liver donations made through the U. has tripled. A portion of a liver can be given by a live donor because of its unique ability to regenerate.
University of Utah Health spokeswoman Suzanne Winchester also explained that the U. has recently "focused on performing multiorgan transplants to patients in need, including three combined heart-kidney transplants" in 2018.
Dr. Craig Selzman, chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the U., said "one of the amazing things" about a prosperous transplant program is "the number of people that are involved" in enabling patients' recovery. He said for one transplant patient in particular, he estimates about 500 medical providers have helped that person heal in one way or another over a yearslong period.
One of the most recent transplant recipients at the U. is James Dillard, of King Hill, Idaho, who received a new liver on Dec. 9 and was moved to tears Friday as he thanked those who have helped him extend his life.
"I love life and I get a chance to carry it on and spend more time with my grandkids," Dillard said, his voice ripe with emotion. "The doctors and the nurses and everybody (have) been fantastic, and I just appreciate everything that they’ve done for me."
Dillard said as recently as two months ago, he thought there was "no way" he would be as healthy and able as he is now with a working liver.
"I was done," Dillard said.
Kim praised Dillard, saying "it's easy to give up when things are dire, but that's not the case here."
"He stands on his own two feet today as a testament of the work … not only from our program, but also (him) and his family," Kim said.
Dillard said of his donor that it would be impossible to "show them how much I appreciate what has happened."
"I get to spend more time with my grandkids," he said. "I ain't ready to leave this world yet."
Burrup also thanked his donor for "the life that he's given me."
"(I) encourage anyone that may be on the fence and considering donating. … The gift that you're giving someone else is — I can't even express it," he said. "The gift of life is unbelievable."Comment on this story
While Burrup is cheered by the record-breaking transplants at the U., he says the numbers can't tell the whole story.
"It's one thing to hear the numbers, but to see the other side of it — looking at me you’d never even know I had a heart transplant," he said.
Burrup, who turns 40 over the weekend, says he has had his quality of life restored, and that his future is more secure than it had been in some time before receiving his new heart.
"I couldn’t ask for a better present than having a new heart and having a new lease on life."