KC double heart transplant patient warns heart failure can happen to anyone — even seemingly healthy people

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- February is American Heart Month, and one local heart disease survivor is warning others that heart failure can happen to anyone -- even someone who’s the picture of health.

Chris Williams was preparing for his first bodybuilding show. He was eating healthy and exercising daily, but then something suddenly wasn’t right.

“I couldn’t eat," he said. "Every time I’d take a bite of something, two bites of something, I’d be full, and I was just training for my first bodybuilding competition, so I was very frustrated.”

Chris Williams

Williams went to several doctors, most told him it was asthma, until one found his heart was in desperate trouble. He was sent straight to St. Luke’s Hospital.

“I got diagnosed with congestive heart failure,” Williams said. “I didn’t drink or smoke. I was training for a show, and I just got sick like that.”

He had multiple mini strokes, then one massive stroke

“I guess I was out for like three days,” Williams said.

Miraculously, he recovered fully from the stroke. Then on July 4, 2012, Williams got a new heart.

He moved to Texas with his wife for a new job and was doing well -- until four years after the transplant when his body started to reject his new heart.

“He took very good care of the first heart, but because of medication changes, he lost it,” said Andrew Kao, a cardiologist and the medical director of the Heart Transplant Program at St. Luke’s.

Chris Williams

Williams’ new insurance wouldn’t pay for the name-brand anti-rejection drugs, and Kao said switching to the generic brand is what caused him to go into rejection. Williams came back to Kansas City and waited in St. Luke’s Hospital for a new heart for 213 days.

“There were so many different antibodies that he was exposed to that he really -- we weren’t able to find an appropriate heart for him for seven-plus months,” Kao said.

Williams kept his spirits up by lifting weights, taking walks and one nurse even brought him a stationary bike from her home.

In the fall, Williams spent one evening out of the hospital to make it to his son’s senior football game. He knew it might be the last chance he’d get to see his son play.

“One of the best times of my life, moments of my life,” Williams said.

Finally, on Feb. 3, 2017, Williams got the news that a new heart -- a perfect match -- was available. A few weeks later, Williams was released from the hospital, a place that had become his second home.

Chris Williams

“It was just a blessing. That’s how special St. Luke’s was to me,” Williams said.

Through the entire process, he was the inspiration for all of his medical staff. He was the patient they said made them a better person, and although they were happy to see one of their most inspiring patients healed and ready for a new life, they were sad to see him go.

“When you see someone who is trying so hard to achieve something for himself, you want to be his cheerleader and cheer along with him,” Kao said.

Kao said Williams’ heart problems were caused by Idiopathic Cardiomyopathy, which is basically to say, it’s unknown what caused his heart failure.

It’s important to know some of the warning signs of heart problems, Kao said, even if, like Chris, you’re not a high-risk patient. If you have problems breathing, swollen legs, pain in the chest or a change in your heart’s rhythm, the St. Luke's cardiologist recommends you get checked out by a doctor.