HEWITT — Ten years ago, Roy Praschil became breathless after taking just four or five steps. He had trouble walking from his car into his house. The then 51-year-old Hewitt man had been suffering from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, diagnosed when he was 16, a progressive disease that is associated with the thickening of the heart muscle. It afflicted many in his family.
Today, at 61, Praschil barely resembles the man he was back then. Ten years ago in February, Praschil was the recipient of a new heart. It gave him his life back. On Sunday, April 12, Praschil and an entire team of his family and friends - 35 strong - will honor the man who donated his heart to Praschil, Robert "Bobby" Walker, by participating in the NJ Sharing Network's annual 5K Celebration of Life.
Praschil owes his life to Walker, who died in a car accident in 2005 at the age of 22. It wasn't long before the accident that the Avenel man told family members he would want to be an organ donor if something ever happened to him. Walker was "very passionate about it," his sister, Kelly Walker, told a reporter at last year's 5K walk.
Around the same time that Walker made his decision to be a donor, Praschil's condition worsened. In January, 2005, Karen Praschil found her husband in the driveway of their home during a snowstorm. He had suffered cardiac arrest. His thickened heart made it difficult for the implanted cardioverter-defibrillator to shock him back into a normal heart rhythm. He had been added to the New Jersey transplant waiting list for a heart in October, 2004 and, following the cardiac arrest, was moved to the top of the list.
A new lifePraschil said his quality of life changed instantly after the transplant.
"Before surgery, I had trouble walking from my car into the house," said Praschil, now 61. "It was an effort to take four or five steps. I'd be exhausted. I couldn't keep up with friend hunting and fishing."
Since the surgery, that's all different.
"Now' I've got to wait for my friends to catch up to me now," he said. "I have no problem splitting a half cord of wood. Mountains aren't an obstacle anymore."
And he will walk the 5K on Sunday.
Karen Praschil, Roy's wife, is a nurse at Hackensack Medical Center. She said that prior to his surgery her husband's quality of life was "pretty lousy." His defibrillator wasn't really working, she said, and his heart was just so sick. He was more of a spectator in life than a participant.
"Roy watched the family do things," she said. "Life was really hard for him."
Family historyPraschil's father and uncle died in their 40s with the same disease. Karen Praschil said it is the number one cause of sudden cardiac arrest in both kids and adults. It is genetic - 21 family members have the disease, including two of the their three grown children.
"Knowing you have the disease is half the battle," she said. Her children are healthy, thanks in part to the defibrillators that keep their heart rhythms normal.
She is beyond grateful that her husband had the opportunity to live, thanks to the heart transplant. She hopes her children don't need a transplant but is grateful for the advances in medicine that give them that option if necessary.
Roy's second chanceThese past 10 years have been a gift and a blessing, according to Karen Praschil.
"We have two granddaughters now," she said. "Roy would have never met them. And we're expecting a third."
And it's all because of the selfless gift of organ donation. Roy wasn't the only person saved because of Bobby Walker's decision to be a donor. Bryan Mueller, 28, originally from New Jersey and now living in Boston, received a kidney.
One donation can save eight lives and enhance the lives of 50 people, Karen Praschil said, between organs, cornea and tissue donation.
Families meetPraschil decided he wanted to meet his donor's family so he wrote a letter to them, through the NJ Sharing Network. They met at the 5K race five years ago. Needless to say, it was an emotional meeting.
"(Bobby's) mother walked up to me and put her hand on my chest," said Praschil, who said the Walker family is a great family. "It was an emotional meeting on both sides."
Karen Praschil is connected to organ and tissue donation from both sides, as part of a donor family as well. She lost a cousin 11 years ago and her organs were donated.
"It's painful and unspeakable," she said of losing someone suddenly. For the family to look past their own pain to help others is remarkable.
"I'm so grateful that they did it," said Karen Praschil. "I'm grateful to their generosity to fulfill his wish. There's a piece of me, I wish they didn't have to. It’s really hard to say thank you and be happy when this family has lost so much.”
The families have grown close. This summer, the Praschils, as well as Mueller, will attend the wedding of Walker's sister.
Team 360 is formedPraschil was the 360th heart transplant at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. Only fitting the team they formed to participate in the NJ Sharing Network's 5K Celebration of Life would be named Team 360. Mueller is part of the team, as is Walker's family.
This year, there will be two locations for the 5K walk: New Providence and at Bergen Community College in Paramus. Karen Praschil will volunteer in New Providence but the team of 35 will walk in Paramus. Their goal is to raise more than $5,000.
Team 360 also honors Praschil’s good friend, Frank Dayon, and Karen Praschil’s cousin, Zan Tozzi, who were both organ donors as well.
Karen Praschil learned about NJ Sharing Network's annual 5K through a colleague. Team 360 has participated since the beginning, five years ago.
And this year's 5K is very special to Team 360. They have been asked to be the lead team at the walk.
Every step they take is precious. And so appreciated.