When Jake Gilbert had a stroke at age 35, he assumed it was a fluke.

He said there had been no warning signs before the stroke but his family had a history of heart problems. At the time in the summer of 2015, he was a week out from having gall bladder surgery and in recovery for alcoholism. The first doctors he worked with assumed it was a side effect of his gastric problems.

“I threw sheetrock around and laid flooring at work and ran around with my kids. They (the doctors) never thought to check my heart for problems,” Gilbert said.

When they did perform a CT scan on his heart, Gilbert was stunned by the true cause of his stroke. His heart had expanded to the size of a softball and was approaching a critical state of failure. Doctors at the Idaho Heart Institute told him he had a 15 percent chance of living through the month.

He was soon hospitalized for more than a year in Utah, undergoing a major heart surgery and eventually a heart transplant. It was a long, painful road back to Idaho Falls and he immediately wanted to help others in a similar situation.

Gilbert became the founder and lead spokesman of Heart 2 Heart, Idaho Falls’ only support group for heart trauma patients. Heart 2 Heart offers support and advice for all levels of patients with cardiac problems, from heart failure that can be managed with diet and medication to transplant recipients such as Gilbert. The group works with the Idaho Heart Foundation, a cardiovascular health nonprofit that was founded by two local experts on heart attacks.

The foundation’s president is Dr. Blake Wachter, a transplant cardiologist with the Idaho Heart Institute and one of the doctors who initially worked with Gilbert when he was diagnosed. She remembered that Gilbert was scared for himself, his wife and three children but that he was immediately ready for treatment.

“I looked into his eyes and saw his determination. I knew he was serious and wanted to live,” Wachter said.

For several months, Gilbert visited Wachter and other experts at the Idaho Heart Institute several times per week for his initial treatments and tests. In October 2015, he traveled to Intermountain Medical Center in Utah for some tests and diagnoses that couldn’t be done in Idaho.

Gilbert did not drive back from Utah that day. His doctors told him that his heart had such high risk of failure that they couldn’t let him leave the hospital, morally or legally. He was immediately fast-tracked to receive his first heart surgery a few days later, when doctors installed an electrical device called an LVAT that would re-synchronize his heartbeat.

“That fight after I got the LVAT was hard. I have never experienced pain like that,” Gilbert said.

Staying at the hospital for continuing treatment and therapy was expensive but Gilbert would have needed to return anyway. Idaho doesn’t have a heart transplant center and Intermountain is one of three hospitals in Utah that can do the surgery. According to the Organ Procurement and Transportation Network, Gilbert was one of 48 heart transplants that were done in Utah in 2016 and one of just 17 patients who had the surgery at Intermountain.

Gilbert stayed in the hospital to receive extensive physical therapy and stay on the waitlist for a transplant. It would take until July for doctors to clear Gilbert to receive a transplant heart and for a donor to become available.

It was during his first round of recovery that he met Brent Haupt, another heart patient who was traveling the corridors to comfort patients. Haupt believed that the only people who really understood the pain that cardiac patients go through are other cardiac patients, so he and Gilbert worked to counsel others in the hospital.

“Fear of the unknown is the biggest enemy we have right now,” Gilbert remembered him and Haupt saying.

The pair quickly helped start a support group called The Zipper Club. The group met twice a week in a hospital conference room to share their members’ stories and pain. Some patients had successful procedures while some patients died, which meant the group was constantly in flux, but nearly 100 patients and caretakers were regularly attending by the end of Gilbert’s stay.

Gilbert finally returned to Idaho Falls in June 2017, nearly a year after his transplant, and began working with the Idaho Heart Foundation soon afterward. He already had started talking to Wachter about the importance of support groups while he was in Utah. Support group attendees at Intermountain Medical Center reported improvements to their physical and mental health during the recovery and Wachter knew some patients would be more receptive to her advice if there was a group supporting them.

“It’s very important for heart failure patients to know they’re not alone and that the lifestyle changes I ask of them really do make a difference,” Wachter said.

One of Gilbert’s friends ended up joining the support group as well. Chad Bateman knew Gilbert through his wife, but the two weren’t especially close until Bateman was diagnosed with his own heart failure in September. While his issue was not as life-threatening as Gilbert’s, Bateman said he still was drawn toward the bonding the support group offered.

“I felt I needed it. I had too many questions that a doctors could not answer without talking to me in medical terms,” Bateman said.

Heart 2 Heart was started in December and currently has 17 regular members in Idaho Falls. The group focuses on mental health, improving diets and other non-medical ways to improve the members’ lives as they address their cardiac concerns. Despite meeting in the former office of the Idaho Heart Institute and working with Wachter and Idaho Falls EMS Chief Eric Day through the Idaho Heart Foundation, there is no official connection between Heart 2 Heart and any medical group in Idaho Falls.

The support group and the heart foundation overlaps in their efforts to improve heart health awareness in Idaho Falls. The Idaho Heart Foundation leads CPR training classes in the city and raises funds to equip emergency vehicles with automated external defibrillators. Chief Day, who also serves as the nonprofit’s vice president, explained that few city police cars were equipped with the device and even fewer officers were trained in how to properly use them.

“As a paramedic, you see a lot of cardiac arrests and a lot of deaths that may have been preventable,” Day said.

Gilbert helped get him employer, Alpha Graphics, to raise more than $8,000 through the Idaho Heart Foundation for AED installations for police and fire vehicles. The next big project will be creating a float for the city Fourth of July parade, promoting both Heart 2 Heart and general awareness of CPR practices.

Creating the support group and changing his diet have been major positive changes in Gilbert’s life. But his favorite new addition to his life is that his kids have begun celebrating July 7th as Father’s Day — remembering the day when he got his new heart.

“That’s the day I got my dad back,” his daughter said.

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The Heart 2 Heart Support Group meets on the first and third Wednesday of the month in room 205 of the EIRMC medical office building at 2860 Channing Way. Idaho Heart Foundation’s next meeting will be at 6 p.m. May 1 in the same place.

Contact Brennen with news tips at 208-542-6711.

Kauffman reports on health care and city events for the Post Register.