Chris Williams was a healthy guy.

The 36-year-old bodybuilder worked out regularly, played basketball, didn’t smoke, and watched his diet.

Yet, in January 2012, Williams could barely drag himself out of bed. And walking a few steps across the room left him gasping for air.

He went to a doctor, and then another, and another—all said the same thing: You have asthma.

But Williams’ symptoms worsened over the next couple of months, and his fiancée Ashlee—who was studying nursing—suspected something bigger. She insisted he visit the local pharmacy’s walk-in clinic for an electrocardiogram (EKG).

Call her a lifesaver: The test showed a severe abnormality with William’s heart.

"I couldn't believe it because I was really healthy," recalled Williams."They said, 'you need to get to Saint Luke's right away.'"

At Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, Williams learned that a virus had attacked his heart muscle, leaving the left side pumping at less than 10 percent. His heart was failing.

But Williams was in good hands: Andrew Kao, M.D., is one of six cardiologists who specialize in heart failure and transplantation. This team, along with cardiovascular surgeons, worked together to identify the best treatment for Williams.

However, Williams' condition presented a challenge.

First, they had to decrease the fluid buildup in his lungs—a condition called pulmonary edema—that was leaving Williams breathless. And then Williams suffered a series of strokes caused by a blood clot in his left ventricle.

During his 10-day hospital stay, Williams became weaker. The Saint Luke's transplant team determined that Williams would die without a heart transplant. However, the strokes left him too weak for surgery. He would have to regain strength before he could receive a new organ.

"I was nervous about going home because I worried that I might have another stroke," said Williams. "And I thought I'd have to wait a long time."

Williams was wrong. He joined the waiting list at Saint Luke’s on June 13, and he received a new heart on July 4.

Pumped up
By July 12, Williams was back home and beginning a six-week cardio rehab program at Saint Luke’s Health Enhancement Center. He walked and rode a stationary bike to boost his stamina. And after six weeks, he was cleared to resume weight training.

Today, he continues to build his strength with the goal of resuming the level of physical endurance he enjoyed before his heart transplant. And he's even more mindful of his body.

"I was never the type to lay around—I was always going, working two to three jobs and going to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning," said Williams. "But now I listen to my body. If I'm tired, I rest; I'm in bed at 9 every night. I still eat really well, but I stay away from red meat now."

Experiencing a life-threatening health issue at a young age also gave him a new outlook.

"It's frustrating because I got a virus," said Williams. "Although I was scared, the doctors and nurses took great care of me. I feel like it was a blessing."

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Learn more about Saint Luke’s heart transplant program.