About two months ago, Matt Shilling was a healthy 47-year-old man with a job, a girlfriend of 10 years, Amy Harvey, a son and two dogs. Suddenly he began to experience a cough and shortness of breath, so he went to the doctor.
“I don’t remember much,” Shilling said. Harvey was by his side the whole time.
Raj Padmanabhan, assistant professor of critical care medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC, determined Shilling was in atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm resulting in cardiomyopathy. “His heart muscle wasn’t doing its job properly, it was just really weak,” even after the viral infection was controlled.
“We gave him all the available options,” said Padmanabhan. Urgent placement of a percutaneous VAD, cardiac catheters … but he did not respond as hoped to any treatment or medication. Eventually, he was evaluated for a heart transplant.
At some point around there, “Things came into focus,” Shilling said. He and Harvey decided to get married. They had talked about it before, they had even gotten engaged, but life somehow always got in the way of a wedding.
Waiting for tests to come back that would indicate whether Shilling could be put on the transplant list, “I think I just said, ‘I’d marry you right now,’” said Harvey.
“And that’s all it took,” said Padmanabhan.
Preparations for festivities
On Thursday, Nov. 7, a UPMC social worker coordinated with city hall and obtained an emergency marriage license. It had to be used within 48 hours.
When word of the impending nuptials got around the Cardiothoracic ICU, people got excited.
Violet and white balloons were inflated. Catering was ordered along with a white cake. A last-minute call to the couple’s pastor back in Erie was made (“I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone,” said Harvey. “It’s a large church!”).
Meanwhile, tests came back with the news that Shilling could be placed on the transplant list. Connor, the couple’s son, helped tie purple and white flower bouquets to the arms of chairs in the Cardiothoracic ICU (CTICU) Family Lounge to keep busy. The bride called her sister.
“Usually these things don’t happen,” said Padmanabhan. “I think it’s important because it’s easy to treat a patient as a patient. But there’s more to medicine than just healing people. It’s things like this that make it a little bit special.”
On Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, Amy Harvey and Matt Shilling were married.
They had met in high school, dated for a bit, gone to prom together. (Shilling kept a photo on his bedside table in the hospital.) They had lost touch, then reconnected. They had built a life together, then almost lost each other again, quite unexpectedly.
Going beyond medical expertise
Shilling was at a loss for words after the ceremony.
“They’re just so skilled,” he said of the CTICU team. “Obviously at what they do—I mean, the care has been amazing, they really took time with the diagnosis and explaining every possible option and outcome… but then this incredible combination of skill and kindness … and the organization needed to pull all this off … It was amazing to watch,” said Shilling. “And that’s really all I had to do.”
“They’re all secret party planners!” Harvey joked.
Usually, said Padmanabhan, the Family Lounge sees a lot of difficult news. “We’ve had many conversations here, many meetings here, but none that have celebrated life as much as we have here today.
“It goes to show how great a family everybody is. It goes above and beyond the ICU staff or the nursing staff or even just us as a hospital. It goes to show what the ethic is of the institution as a whole.”
Shilling looked around at the small reception: people in scrubs and clogs, the guestbook signed with dozens of ICU staff names.
“I feel like I could be friends with them,” he said with tears in his eyes. “It’s strange to think that we’ll part ways eventually …”
Hours after his wedding on that Friday, Shilling had a procedure to try and fix his abnormal heart rhythm. With the right medications over time, the hope is to get his heart function back to normal, said Padmanabhan.
Heart transplant is still an option to fall back on if need be according to Padmanabhan. But right now, things are looking up.
Matt and Amy celebrated Thanksgiving this year at home, as a family. Checkups have been promising. His heart rate and blood pressure are still low but exercising and medication are doing their part to keep his heart rhythm under control.
Shilling has been back to work as a division manager at Rabe Environmental, a mechanical contracting company, in a limited capacity since early December.
For their first Christmas as a married couple, Matt and Amy are looking forward to spending time with their son in Erie, going to each of their parents’ homes and taking time to be together.
“I’m also playing bass in the church band this year” for the annual Christmas pageant, said Shilling. “It’s nice to be back in the regular swing of things, have some normalcy.”
At Shilling’s first checkup of the New Year, the couple is looking forward to catching up with the care team. “I haven’t stopped thinking about them,” he said. “It’s not something you forget.”
About the team of professionals who saved his life, Shilling said, “Dr. Raj has said it a million times: ‘You’re where you are for a reason’ and I believe that.”