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With its “Lives Lost” series, The Gazette is remembering those whose lives were cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the impact of the pandemic is felt in other ways, too. With “Lives Left Behind,” The Gazette is profiling those who have lost not their lives but their livelihoods, who have been forced to put their dreams on hold or struggled to keep their businesses afloat as the coronavirus keeps its grip on the world.

Andy Cummings was a big guy with a big laugh and a big heart that, like his father’s, began to fail in the prime of life.

Andy was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and suffered his first, mild heart attack in his early 40s. In his 50s, he knew he was living on borrowed time, and by 60, that time was running out.

A Colorado Springs native, Andy and his wife, Lori, had moved to Arizona in hopes his health might improve at a lower altitude. It seemed to help at first, but then the disease took a turn for the worse. The couple found themselves back in the Springs, where, about two years ago, Andy was able to get on the transplant list to receive a donor heart.

“He was so happy. He was looking forward to everything, his second chance,” Lori said. “His father had had to have a heart transplant, too, but developed a staph infection and never made it out of the hospital.”

Andy was determined that wouldn’t be his story. Chronic bleeding caused by the ventricular assist device implanted to keep his heart pumping until a donor organ could be found, however, made surgery too risky. Andy’s name came off the list.

A family holiday photo of Andy Cummings and his son, Justin Cummings, wife Lori Cummings, and four grandsons. (Photo courtesy of Cummings family)

“He was really really upset about that, so he tried really hard to kind of work out and go walking, doing projects around the house … getting stronger,” said his son, Justin. “He did everything he could.”

By the late summer of 2020, Andy was deemed healthy enough to undergo surgery, and he again joined the transplant wait list. Less than two months later, the family got the call they’d been waiting for.

“We were all so excited. He said, ‘One year after my heart, we’ll be able to do everything again. We’ll be able to travel again. We just have to be really careful because of COVID. Because if I get COVID, I’m not going to make it,’” Lori said.

Andy Cummings received his new heart Oct. 21 at UCHealth Transplant Center in Aurora.

He died Dec. 29, one day after his 64th birthday, after contracting the coronavirus during post-surgical recovery at home.

“We all got to sing him “Happy Birthday” on Facetime, and he died the next day, minutes before my birthday came,” said Lori, who turned 63 Dec. 30. “It’s a horrible hard story and it’s sad … but I want to tell it. He wanted me to tell it.”

Lori Cummings is heartbroken to lose her husband of nearly 40 years, Andy Cummings, to COVID-19. Andy had just gotten a heart transplant in October. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Pandemic times are especially dangerous for heart transplant recipients, said Dr. Jon Kobashigawa, a medical cardiologist and director of the heart transplant program at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, home to the nation’s top adult heart transplant program.

According to studies last year, the mortality rate for heart transplant patients who contracted COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized was 23% in New York City and 29%, or almost double that of the general population, in northern Italy.

“Our transplant patients, as with any immunosuppressed patient, are at risk to develop not only COVID but more severe forms of COVID,” said Kobashigawa.

Like hospitals everywhere, during the first surge of the pandemic last March and April, Cedars-Sinai stopped performing elective surgeries and heart transplants were only done on patients who were in cardiogenic shock, and needed immediate, life-saving surgery. About 20% of patients die while waiting for a heart to become available.

Once the hospital had learned how to safely isolate COVID patients (and caregivers) to prevent accidental transmission within its walls, and better therapies were found to treat the disease, the almost-1,000-bed hospital was able to increase those numbers significantly. Even with the significant slowdown in the spring, the hospital performed 128 heart transplants, nine more than were done in 2019.

Doctors don’t have any way of knowing how many transplant patients get mild cases of COVID and recover without being admitted to the hospital. If they become sick enough to be admitted to the hospital, though, “those are huge mortality risks,” Kobashigawa said.

Cedars-Sinai has lost four heart transplant patients to COVID-19, all of whom received their hearts before the pandemic and contracted the virus outside the hospital setting. 

“It’s very much like what the rest of the country is seeing as well, with almost half a million Americans dying from COVID. This is reality,” he said.

According to its website, UCHealth has performed more than 500 successful heart transplants in adults and children since 1986.

The hospital did not respond to interview requests from The Gazette in time for publication.

It had only been a few months since Andy Cummings had received a heart transplant for which he had been waiting. Then he got COVID-19 and passed away. Andy’s grandson Ayden Cummings, 13, becomes emotional when talking about his favorite memories of his grandfather. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Andy was born in Indiana and raised in the Springs, where he graduated from Widefield High School. He served in the Marines, but, by his early 20s, had received a medical discharge, his associate degree in business, and was working as a head clerk at King Soopers. That’s where he met Lori, a part-time employee and Pueblo native who’d recently moved to town with her young daughter, Celeste, in search of a new beginning.

“I was like an instant thing. I was drawn to him, he was drawn to me,” said Lori.

At first, she’d been reluctant to tell her new beau she had a daughter, worried it might scare him off as it had other men she had dated. In retrospect, she wishes she’d opened with that.

“He had been in a previous marriage that didn’t work out, they couldn’t have children … he thought that was their downfall,” Lori said. “I said, ‘Well, I have a little girl’ … and, oh my gosh, he just lit up like a Christmas tree. He wanted to know everything about her. He was a great dad to her. He never told anybody, ‘This is my stepdaughter.’”

Andy and Lori married a year later, in May 1981, and started expanding the family: daughters Andrena, now 38, and Carlie, 37, and son Justin, 36. He would go on to become a grandfather of 13 and great-grandfather to Celeste’s daughter, named JadeAndy, in his honor.

Andy Cummings with his daughter, Carlie, at a Rockies game. (Photo courtesy of Cummings family)

“He was our rock. He was the rope that bound this family together,” Justin said. “He was the world’s greatest dad. A man’s man, a gentleman and a scholar. Very intelligent, just the most humble kind and caring man you’d ever meet, would give the shirt off his back to a complete stranger.”

It was such a stranger, a 49-year-old local resident and organ donor, that ended up saving Andy’s life.

Lori remembers being struck by how healthy Andy seemed the first time the family was able to visit him in the hospital after the nine-hour transplant surgery.

“He looked amazing. We couldn’t believe how good he looked after getting that heart transplant,” Lori said. 

After two and a half weeks of recovering at the hospital, Justin said the family was told Andy’s body had accepted the heart, he was “medically stable” and could continue his recovery at home.

It had only been a few months since Andy Cummings had received a heart transplant for which he had been waiting. Then he got COVID-19 and passed away. The family made a display of family photos for the funeral. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Justin drove him home from the hospital, but by the time they arrived in the Springs — to the house Andy and Lori share with Justin and their four young grandchildren — Andy was “shaking like a leaf” and in the throes of severe delirium, Lori said.

He was taken by ambulance to Memorial Hospital, where an infection was discovered and Andy was rushed back to Aurora.

“It was just one infection after the other. They put him through so many surgeries and so much stuff, because they were worried — they wanted to save that heart,” Lori said.

Though the family searched for a safe place for Andy to convalesce long term, closer to the hospital and away from a multigenerational household where they worried it would be impossible to guarantee 100% isolation from the virus, Lori said the options were few, and far too expensive.

“Everywhere I went I ran into just brick walls,” said Lori, who suffers from a number of debilitating health issues including diabetes, fibromyalgia and spinal issues. Both she and Andy were on Medicare, and subsisting on what limited funds came in from Social Security and Andy’s retirement benefits.

“I kept telling them, please don’t send him home. We live in such a vulnerable house, and COVID was making a comeback,” Lori said. “We had hand sanitizers, Andy wore gloves, we wore masks. We didn’t wear them in the house, but we didn’t go anywhere. We thought we were being so careful.”

Still, the virus found a way in.

Andy returned home, for a final time, on Nov. 12.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving, Lori started feeling short of breath and “weird.” Her body was wracked by aches. She tested her blood oxygen and it was dangerously low.

The following day, the fever hit. Lori went to the emergency room, where she tested positive for COVID-19 and was sent immediately to UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital.

“Andy wasn’t even really showing any symptoms when he went to the hospital. He just went there because I checked positive,” said Lori. “As soon as he checked positive they took him straight to (Aurora) and admitted him on the COVID ward. From there he got sicker and started having problems breathing.”

The entire household ended up contracting the virus. Lori and one of her grandsons had it the worst and still are suffering lingering symptoms. But they all recovered.

Andy never did. The virus rampaged through his body and he was placed on a ventilator.

“After his diagnosis, we got to talk to him on phone and by ZOOM … and Andy would kind of move and moan when he would hear our voices, but he was in a medically induced coma so we don’t know how much he heard,” said Lori. “No family should have to go through that. That’s the sad part about COVID is you don’t get to be with them and they end up dying alone. And nobody understands it unless you’ve lived it. It’s just a nightmare.”

In a hospital setting, staff follow rigid protocols to make sure patients in post-surgical ICU don’t have any exposure to spaces or staff who also care for coronavirus patients. Dr. Kobashigawa said he was not aware of any cases in which a heart transplant patient contracted the virus while recovering in a hospital.

Once patients are released, though, safety is largely in others’ hands.

At Cedars-Sinai and nationwide, most patients stay in the hospital about 11 days after receiving a new heart. 

“In a place like L.A. where one out of three people has COVID, what can you do when they go home? They have to do their own due diligence, the patient and the family, making sure they don’t contract it, making sure they don’t bring it home to their loved ones,” said Dr. Fardad Esmailian, a cardiothoracic surgeon who performs heart transplants at Cedars-Sinai. “So that’s going to be the key issue, not as much as the hospital, but how those patients take care of themselves after they leave the hospital. They can’t live in the hospital forever. At some point they have to go home.”

He said he also understands what that means for the loved ones who care for those patients, fighting an unseen enemy that can use the slightest lapse to gain a fatal foothold.

“It’s just a very difficult time for everybody, the patients, the doctors. We’re all trying to save as many lives as we can,” he said.

For the family of Andy Cummings, whose life was saved — then lost — the mourning is mixed with anger. At the deadly virus and a national response that downplayed its severity until too late, and a hospital they believe should have done more to make sure Andy’s second chance, and the donor heart that made it possible, weren’t lost.

“If he had stayed in the hospital, we would have all gotten COVID here … but he would have been safe,” Lori said. “Andy was young. He worked so hard and waited so long for that surgery … and he took that heart like a champ. He was the best husband any woman could ever ask for, the best father, best grandfather, best friend. He was my whole world and I just feel so lost without him.”

This content was originally published here.