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Heart to Heart

CHARLIE DEISE DIED on the hospital table—twice. During a five-year span, the Golden Hill denizen suffered multiple major heart attacks. But that’s the beginning of the story. A heart transplant enabled Deise to jumpstart a new life as a competitive swimmer and championship chess player. Now 50, he recently married for the first time.

A Type 1 diabetic since he was 8, Deise’s hopes and dreams were cast into limbo when he suffered his first heart attack at 31. By 40, the disease snowballed into its final stages, attacking his cardiovascular system, eyesight and ability to work. Because of his diabetes, Deise was turned down by three heart-transplant programs.

In 1991, he became a patient of Dr. Marcelo Rivera. A month later, Deise was transported to Pomerado Hospital in major cardiac arrest. It took a team of five specialists 12 days to stabilize him. His chances of survival approached zero. It took Rivera nine months to get Deise an appointment with UCSD’s Heart & Lung Transplant Program—a rare accomplishment for a Type 1 diabetic.

Deise got his new heart in 1992. “I felt better almost immediately after the transplant,” he says. “It was an epiphany of sorts. When I got home a week later, my buddy called and said, ‘The good news is: You’re going to live. The bad news is: Now you have to get a life.”

Deise soon discovered the U.S. Transplant Games. Founded in 1982, it’s a four-day athletic competition for transplant patients from 50 states. Deise joined Team Southern California. He competed in the 50- and 100-yard breaststroke at the 2000 Games in Orlando, Florida.

“I may not have won a medal at my first competition, but now that I’m 50, I’ll be the youngest in my age category,” he says. Funding from the YMCA helps allow him to train five days a week. He’s now seeking corporate sponsors for the World Transplant Games, scheduled for June in Nancy, France.

Deise hopes his return from the brink is an inspiration not just for diabetics but for anyone who thinks youth may be too far in the rear-view mirror. “You don’t ever have to give up,” he says.

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