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Finding a new rhythm

Master Sgt. Terrell Murray

Master Sgt. Terrell Murray

Hill Air Force Base, Utah -- An unknown virus found its way to him like the plague and tried to take his life as it attacked his heart.

"I thought I was just coming down with something from the flu shot I had about a week before," said Master Sgt. Terrell Murray, as he described the events that lead up to the moment he knew about his failing heart.

Sergeant Murray, who at the time was on temporary duty in Florida as the superintendent of the Viper West demonstration team in February 2005, decided his first stop after coming back to SLC would be the emergency room.

His lower body continued to swell and the flu-like symptoms continued to worsen with his breathing. "My legs and ankles were swollen by the time I got off the plane. I was so sick I couldn't even carry my own laptop or walk to the other terminal during the layover," he said. But still with the classic symptoms of heart failure, he never would have guessed what the future had in store for him.

He was taken to the Davis Hospital Emergency Room after arriving at the airport. Through numerous diagnostic tests, physicians found his heart was enlarged. "My heart was straining because of the extra fluids," said Sergeant Murray.

After 10 days in the hospital, his weight began to significantly decrease with the medications he was given. "I dropped literally 25 pounds while I was down there," said Sergeant Murray. "I went from 195 pounds to 170 by the time they released me to take off the pressure from my heart."

Sergeant Murray was placed on convalescent leave for about a month and a half but was still determined to finish out the season with Viper West.

The season ended and Sergeant Murray was back in the hospital for further examinations. Finally, The doctors broke the news about his condition.

"It was like a movie the way the medical team came in. It looked like the part in the movie where all the students file in after the doctor and surround the bed," he said.

The doctor asked him if he had a history of heart conditions to which he answered "no". "Well you do now," the doctor told him. He was told about his condition, called congestive heart failure. "I didn't know to the extent of what that was at the time, but I knew that heart and failure didn't belong in the same sentence."

"Sometimes it's surreal if I really think about it. I thought I would never be in this position." In 22 years, he has been almost all over the world and never missed a beat. "I have always been on the go but this just knocked me for a loop."

Sergeant Murray could see in his wife's face that she was worried. He was well aware of the concern that was there. "I could tell by looking at her there was no doubt about the serious issues."

Exactly one year after he was diagnosed, the doctors didn't see the necessary improvements and felt his heart will need help beating by itself. He developed a condition called cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle caused by a virus that runs through the body. Sergeant Murray's heart is gradually losing its ability to pump blood, causing it to back up into his lungs and the rest of his body.

A defibrillator was put in place under the skin to deliver shocks to the heart when the heart quits beating normally and does not deliver blood to the body. It also measures certain levels of his heart activity. "It is basically like having paramedics built inside of that little machine to keep my heart going. Just in case," he said.

"They found in a test that the defibrillator went off once while I was sleeping."
Even with the defibrillator in place, his heart was still getting worse.

"Through all the diagnostic and stress tests, they decided my heart wasn't going to last very much longer. There was no type of improvement after being on all the medications for the year," he said.

It was not until last summer that the determination was made to have a heart transplant. "The team of doctors told me that if I was thinking about longevity, then I would need a new heart," said the current assistant first sergeant to the 388th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "They don't see me going very much longer without this transplant."

"There was a moment of silence between my wife and me the moment we heard the news. This gave us a chance to digest what was said and gave us an opportunity to seek other options."

But other options didn't seem to be the best thing at this point for him and his family.
Sergeant Murray had to go through an intensive process of qualifying to see if he could have the new heart. He has been number one on the donor list since November.

A beeper was issued to him in case a heart becomes available, and he cannot travel outside a two-hour radius of the hospital because of the short time the heart stays available after a donor is found. "There is only a six-hour window open from the moment the team receives the heart and the transplant has to be put in effect. The clock is ticking and you have to be able to respond," said Sergeant Murray.

But there is a sense of humor about the whole situation as he waits for his new heart. "I remember the beeper going off right before the Superbowl." His initial reaction was not what was expected. "My first reaction was, 'Oh man, I'm going to miss the game.' But it turns out the beeper went off due to low battery.

Until he finally gets the actual page, Sergeant Murray continues to work and stay active.
"I get asked a lot why I'm always working. Why not go to work if I feel like working? I see this as it could be a lot worse. I could be bed ridden but by the grace of God, I'm not," he said.

But it's not the surgery that is the worse part of the situation. "The hardest thing about this whole process is the waiting. But I thank God I am healthy enough to move and have great support from every direction."

He receives a lot of support from his family at home and Hill Air Force Base during his waiting period. "My wife, [Senior Master Sgt. Glynda Lilly, superintendent of the 75th Dental Squadron], has been there since day one. I don't know what I would do without her," he said. "I derive my strength from her. It's incredible."

"The support of Team Hill is amazing. They didn't hesitate to visit me in the hospital when I was sick," he said.

Sergeant Murray believes his time with the Air Force will not end after retirement or even the heart transplant. "I know I will always be around the Air Force in one way or another. I miss the flightline, but I love being the assistant first sergeant for the 388th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron."

With all that has impacted his life within the past year, he has taken a different perspective on life. "You learn to appreciate everyday you wake up. Everyday is a good day. Why shouldn't it be?"

Everyday with his family and friends is a blessing, he explains. "Every moment is precious. I'm glad to be here."

Sergeant Murray enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1984, approaching 23 years of service.