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When former NFL Coach Sam Wyche needed a heart transplant, it was teamwork from the doctors at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute that saved his life.

As former head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals NFL team, Sam Wyche knows a lot about teamwork. But teamwork recently took on a new meaning for him when it wasn’t a game on the line – it was his life.

Wyche, 71, had been suffering from cardiomyopathy, a form of heart failure, for years. In early September, he landed in the hospital and sought care at Carolinas HealthCare System’s Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. After a team of cardiologists evaluated every option, Sam learned that his last hope was a long shot: a heart transplant. He would need one very soon – possibly within a week.

“We meet as a team regularly and discuss our patients. And with Coach, the big issue was that things were going in the wrong direction,” says Sanjeev Gulati, MD, FACC, medical director of Heart Failure and Transplant Services at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. “The medicines that we were using in the ICU were not working as well as they needed to.”

But with 4,000 people in need of heart transplants across the country, the chances of finding a match within a week seemed slim. Doctors told Sam that while they were hoping for a heart, he should also prepare himself to enter hospice care.

Instead, just six hours later, doctors came to give the coach the news of a lifetime: They’d found a possible match, and the team was jumping into action to save his life.

“Every Minute Counts”

They didn’t waste a moment. Cardiothoracic surgeon Larry Watts, MD, prepared Sam for surgery, while Mark Stiegel, MD, headed off to get the donor heart.

“You have minutes, hours – you don’t have days,” says Dr. Watts. “Every element of the team has to line up. Without this organ, we’re talking hospice and Sam passing away very quickly.”

“Every minute counts, because every minute means we’re running out of time,” says Dr. Stiegel.

Flying by plane via MedCenter Air, Carolinas HealthCare System’s fleet of emergency transport aircraft, Dr. Stiegel raced to retrieve the donor heart and bring it back to Dr. Watts, who would perform Sam’s heart transplant.

Sanger’s transplant team – whose doctors performed a record 36 heart transplants in 2016 and whose program leads the nation in transplant survival rates – was ready when the heart arrived. Thanks to a coordinated team of surgeons, cardiologists, nurses, transport pilots and a matching organ donor, Sam was getting a new heart.

The Greatest Gift

After living with heart failure for more than a decade, Wyche says he felt like a new person after surgery.

“The doctors told me, ‘You’re not going to feel as you felt before, and you’re not going to feel twice as good as you felt before – you’re going to feel three times as good.’”

Three months later, he has enough strength to bike nearly 20 miles nearly every day. He says he’s grateful for care from a top transplant program, for the incredible teamwork that saved his life, and for the true MVP: the family member who chose organ donation.

“Obviously when there’s good news for the recipient, there’s been some bad news for the donor,” he says. “I’m the grateful one and one day would love to be able to thank their family personally.”

And as Sam reflects on the gifts he’s received, there’s one he’s saving for later.

“The last gift that I’m going to leave this planet with will be the gift of life for somebody else,” he says.


A healthy heart lets you stay focused on doing what you love.  Learn how Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute can help you keep your heart healthy.