Joe Gray and Don Maedche at their wedding reception

After Perilous Heart Ordeal, A Joyous Celebration

By on 02/24/2021

It was a year ago when Don Maedche suffered a heart attack and cardiac arrest in front of his partner, Joe Gray.

Maedche doesn’t even remember the next few months – he was on a ventilator, close to death, with tubes everywhere. No one knew whether he’d still have brain function in the unlikely event that he recovered.

“It’s a miracle that he survived,” says Syed Hasni, MD, one of Maedche’s cardiologists at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. He attributes Maedche’s recovery not only to the excellent medical care he received, but to Gray’s devotion and support throughout the ordeal.

And when Maedche got home after three months at Einstein and MossRehab, he and Gray orchestrated a happy ending to their harrowing journey: after 22 years together, they got married.

Now, they’ve resumed renovating their 140-year-old historical home in Germantown. They take walks along the Wissahickon, weather permitting. And they enjoy sitting i their book-filled third-floor library, listening to music.

Maedche says he’s about 80% recovered. “I still have a problem with balance and some short-term memory and stamina,” he says.

Maedche had a much less severe heart attack 10 years ago. But he neglected comprehensive follow-up care ,in part because he’d just become chief financial officer at the National Museum of American Jewish History and didn’t want anything to interfere with work. Gray was a restaurant manager at a high-end French restaurant. And they were busy renovating the house they’d bought 15 years ago.

Abrupt Cardiac Arrest, Long Recovery

In February 2020, they were sitting in the living room after breakfast when Maedche stopped talking in mid-sentence and was unresponsive. His heart had stopped by the time paramedics arrived. They used paddles to shock him back to life.

He was rushed to Einstein, where Gray was told Maedche’s chances weren’t good.

“He was extremely sick post-cardiac arrest and had to be put on respirator, and his body was cooled to keep his brain alive,” Dr. Hasni says. “He underwent extensive cardiac evaluation, including heart catheterization, which showed severe coronary artery disease.

“In addition, his heart function was severely depressed and his heart was pumping at only 10 to 20% capacity. He underwent stent placement to his coronary arteries and also had a cardiac defibrillator placed during the course of his illness.”

Maedche was in the hospital and in rehab for almost three months. He lost 43 pounds and was too weak to hold a spoon. He had to learn how to regain the voice that had been stilled by the ventilator and tracheotomy tubes.

When he was discharged, “He looked like he was 101 years old,” Gray says. He could barely make it up the 22 steps to the house and was confined to bed for a while.

Tying the Knot Legally

When Maedche finally regained his strength, he and Gray realized they had to make a change. Despite their many devoted years together, they were not legally bound to each other, a tenuous situation that could cause potential complications.

“My involvement in the supervision of his care was never questioned by Einstein; they always included me,” Gray says.

But he might not be so lucky at another hospital. And what if a blood relative of Maedche’s challenged his decisions, however unlikely that might be?  

So, on a lovely afternoon in May, a month after Maedche had come home, they invited a couple of their best friends to join them on their front porch — it was the height of COVID-19  – and got married.

Dr. Hasni says Maedche’s recovery is “miraculous.”

“His heart function has consistently improved and he is almost back to his baseline,” he says. “Thanks to an incredible team of doctors and nurses from interventional cardiology, electrophysiology, intensive care and heart failure, his life was saved.”

But Dr. Hasni also credited Gray. “Throughout his illness. Joe was always by Don’s  side, driving him to his medical appointments. Their caring and loving relationship is very obvious. Joe’s love for Don truly played a role in his recovery.”

 As for Maedche: “I’m just thankful each day that I’m here to appreciate this,” he says. 

Learn more about Einstein heart and vascular care.

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