Anthony McCumber and Jason Wynia dropped the puck Jan. 20 celebrating Donate Life Night, and beginning the Casper Coyotes vs. Colorado Jr. Eagles Hockey Game, an honor earned after a difficult journey during which they each received a gift of life. Both are Wyoming heart transplant recipients.
Ryan Johnson, director of Casper Coyotes Business Operations said, “It is incredible! It means everything to the Coyotes [to have Anthony and Jason] drop the puck. You have two individuals who have dealt with some extremely traumatic experiences...Jason is always laughing and smiling…Anthony is one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met. I think we can learn a lot from them.”
What does it mean to get a new heart at age ten? Anthony McCumber said, “Now I can ride the Tower of Doom!” Before his transplant, he was forbidden to ride roller coasters.
McCumber, now age twelve, said, “It’s given me new opportunities in life. I want to be a chef, open my own restaurant.” He plays in the jazz band and regular band at school and he’s saving money for a new Xbox.
McCumber’s parents discovered at age eight that he had Muscular Dystrophy (MD), a disease which causes progressive muscular weakness and can weaken the heart. Congestive heart failure (CHF) results.
After two years on medication, McCumber was sick with vomiting and no one knew why. Then his lips turned blue. Tests performed in Casper resulted in his being life-flighted to Children’s Hospital Colorado. Given medication and sent home for a time, there was no improvement.
April 30, 2015, he was placed on a heart transplant list as high priority, and June 6 he received a new heart. The next day, McCumber was up and walking.
Jason Wynia didn’t know of any heart disease in his family. He was 35, married and felt healthy when, in May, 2009, he noticed his weight increasing though he was eating less. In June he had trouble breathing at night.
He went to the Emergency Department, was diagnosed with pneumonia and sent home. The radiologist noted an enlarged heart with potential CHF. After three more visits to health care providers and a continued diagnosis of pneumonia, he was sent to a cardiologist for an echocardiogram, and to a pulmonologist.
“That afternoon, before they had the jelly wiped off me, they said, ‘Where’s your wife? You needed to be hospitalized yesterday.’ I went to the ER and never saw home again,” said Wynia. Diagnosed with Idiopathic Cardiomyopathy (unknown reason for an enlarged heart), he spent over two weeks in a Casper hospital.
Life-flighted to a Salt Lake City Hospital to await a heart transplant, his heart failed and he underwent surgery to receive a left ventricular assistive device (LVAD-a battery operated mechanical pump) to keep him alive.
“There were five guys, all the same age, body size and blood type waiting in line for a transplant,” Wynia said. After nine and a half months, he received a new heart at age 36.
Now Wynia and wife Misty “spend more time with family, nieces and nephews,” they said. “We travel more, take vacations.”
Wynia works full time as lead custodian at Fort Caspar Academy “taking care of 400 kids every day.” He works part time at the Casper Ice Arena doing maintenance. He and his wife host members of the Casper Coyotes Junior Hockey Team, currently hosting two young men from Ottowa, Ontario, Canada.
Wynia and McCumber express much gratitude for their donors. They know the cost of the gift. Wynia said it took a year to sort through his feelings in receiving this gift, knowing what had to have happened to make a heart available to him.
Wynia and his wife volunteer for Donate Life Wyoming and talk to anyone they can about being an organ, eye, or tissue donor, or what it’s like to be a recipient. He feels he’s recovered well because of his willingness to share his story.
“To sign up doesn’t hurt anybody,” Wynia said. “It expresses your desires. You can still help people after you pass.”
McCumber shares his illness, surgery and recovery in a matter-of-fact manner, denying he had pain afterwards. “When everything was stitched up, it just started beating,” he said of his new heart received from a twenty one year old donor.
“He was very mature about [the whole experience],” his mother, Darshee, said. “Before we went in [for the surgery] I remember his turning at the door and saying, ‘I’m going to be okay.’”
McCumber attends Round Up River Camp each July in CO. “I meet up with people who have transplants,” he said. Ages five to 18 attend. He and his sister, who also has MD, attend MD camp as well. He zip-lines, rides horse, and rock climbs there.
“He can do anything he wants when it comes to the heart,” Darshee said .
McCumber was a recipient of the Make a Wish® Wyoming Foundation. His family joined him in living out his wish of a four-day Disney cruise to the Bahamas in February, 2016. He said, “I swam with the dolphins!” He visited Ripley’s Believe it or Not and “bought flavored crickets to eat.”
To encourage someone to become a donor, McCumber said, “I would tell them it’s worth it.”
Donate Life Wyoming handles the donor registry for all of Wyoming. Casper Coyotes partner with them because “Donate Life Wyoming is an incredible group of people and we want to do everything we can to support them,” said Johnson.
Donor Alliance is a non-profit organization that procures organs, eye and tissue donations from Wyoming and Colorado.
“Our main goal is public education so they can make an informed decision about being a donor,” said Ryea’ O’Neill, Community Relations Coordinator.
Donor Alliance provides education to schools, organizations and the general public about donation. “Any age and health can donate. New medications are being developed that allow transplants from someone that couldn’t donate before. They are doing successful high risk transplants now from Hepatitis C to Hepatitis C, from HIV to HIV,” said O’Neill.
“One human being has the potential to save 8 people through organ donations, and save or heal up to 75 with tissue donation,” O’Neill said. “There were 198 people on the waiting list for organs in our state last year.” For more information, go to donatelifewyoming.org.
If McCumber could talk to his donor’s family today, he would “ask them where they live and who they are, and I would thank them for my heart,” he said.