An Immigrant's Heart Story

When Jang Jaswal immigrated to this country from India in 1985, he assimilated one part of American culture quite enthusiastically: “When I came here, I got hooked on fast-food fried chicken,” he said. “Every lunchtime, I would buy a bucket and eat it.” To add a little variety, some days he would eat four or five fast-food burgers. Then there was the soda: “I was addicted to diet soda. I would drink four or five bottles a day. Sometimes, I would carry two liters of it with me and keep on drinking it until it was gone. I was under the impression that soda had no bad effect as long as it was diet, zero calories.” In addition to this exemplary American diet, he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.

Then one Friday night in 1989, when he was age 33, he woke up with pressure in his chest and sweaty palms. He told himself it was probably an asthma attack, like those he had witnessed his mother having as a child back in India.

His wife of five years, Sushila, persuaded him to go to the hospital, but medical tests including an EKG were inconclusive and he was released. Jang thought maybe he had pulled a muscle moving some furniture, which was his job at the time, before he moved into his field of genetics and biology.

The following Monday, he anxiously went to an appointment with a cardiologist that the ER doctors had made for him. “The cardiologist listened to my story,” he said. “He sounded like a detective and asked me repetitive questions in such minute detail that it was hard for me to answer.” He ordered another EKG, after which Jang was admitted to the hospital for observation. “The doctor told me that I was either having a heart attack then or had one on Friday night because my EKGs were significantly different. Me, a heart attack? Not possible, there must be some kind of mistake, it had to be a pulled muscle.”

But given Jang’s family history — both parents died of heart attacks after years of suffering with symptoms — it was all too possible … and likely. After two days of tests and questions, the evidence was still inconclusive, so he was transferred to a hospital with a cath lab so that an angiogram could be performed. That was conclusive — two blocked coronary arteries, 80 percent and 95 percent. Thus, started a long collaboration with cardiologists and other doctors to keep Jang alive.

He admits he was not a model patient as he continued to smoke for many years, through 15 stents to prop open his coronary arteries. In 2000, he had two strokes followed by a triple bypass, after which he retired as a quality control supervisor in a biotech lab. Still he continued smoking. “Sometimes, I would go off smoking for like three months, six months, but then I’d come back to it,” he said. “Then I would cheat my doctors and wouldn’t smoke for a couple of days before an appointment because, being a student of science, I knew that all the nicotine gets filtered out of your system within 24 hours, and the bad breath goes away in about 32 hours. So, I wouldn’t smoke for two days before the appointment, then I would tell my doctor that I’m a nonsmoker.”

Jang with his cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. George Wieselthaler

Not surprisingly, Jang’s health did not improve. In 2005 he finally quit smoking, but there were other problems: high blood pressure and poorly controlled diabetes combined with the contrasting agent from the angiograms to cause kidney problems. According to the National Kidney Foundation, this only happens in about 2 percent of otherwise healthy people receiving dyes — but the risk increases considerably for “people with diabetes, a history of heart and blood diseases, and chronic kidney disease.” After a heart attack in 2007, Jang’s kidneys began failing; by 2010, they were gone and he started on dialysis — peritoneal dialysis at home for two and a half years, and then hemodialysis. By 2013, “I started seeing the end of my life,” he said. “I couldn’t stand up.

Jang participates in the Heart Walk

I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t think straight. My mind was all clogged up.” His only hope was a heart and kidney transplant, but “I didn’t qualify for any transplants because I was so weak and I had so many complications.”

One of his doctors told him he had six to eight weeks to live. “I could literally feel the life slipping out of my body,” he said. “I talked with my daughter, who is very strong minded, about how to proceed — me, being Indian and all that, how to do my last rites and how to inform my family in India. I said, ‘It’s not going to be very long, maybe a few weeks.’”

But then Dr. George Wieselthaler, a surgeon in the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, came across his file and called him and his family for a discussion. He talked to them about using a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), which he had inserted in many patients but none who had been on dialysis for so long. “He said, ‘If it works all right and your health improves, I guarantee you, I’ll get you the organs, the heart and kidney.’ I had no other choice — either I agree or I die. I willingly agreed because I have a lot of faith in science and in doctors.”

Within the week, he had the LVAD implanted and started improving right away. He started walking and gaining strength. Within three months he had improved enough that he was put back on the transplant list. Two months later, in November 2013, at age 57, Jang had new organs.

Life has totally changed since then. “Physically, I feel great. I’m back to doing almost all the activities which I used to do before,” he said. “I have a lot of admiration for life now. Before, I took everything for granted. I appreciate everything around me now. Not only my life, everything around me and all I have. That’s why I try to stay happy as much as I can and enjoy life to the fullest.”

Jang stays in contact with his organ donor’s family. He describes it as “a very special relationship.” At age 60, Jang enjoys time with his wife and his two grown children, Veneeta and Ankur. He has the stamina to go deep-sea fishing and to travel in India. He also has written about his health experiences. Watching his health odyssey, his children have learned what not to do and are living healthy lifestyles.

He volunteers with the American Heart Association in San Jose and with the Rise Above Heart Failure program. He has lobbied for anti-smoking initiatives, spoken at American Heart Association events and participated in a heart failure support group.

He urges others not to do what he did and lie to their doctors and ignore their counsel. “I always tell people, ‘Just listen to your doctors and follow their advice.’ That’s how I got through this,” he said. “My doctor would spend about an hour with me, and I would ask all kinds of questions, and then I would try my best to follow whatever he would tell me.”

Jang has also made lifestyle changes by exercise walking 25-30 miles a week, eliminating salt and avoiding bad fats and sugar. He highly recommends one more thing: “Think about donating your organs.”

Jang Jaswal shares his story.

This information is provided as a resource to our readers. The tips, products or resources listed or linked to have not been reviewed or endorsed by the American Heart Association.

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