Friday, March 7, 2014

Safe passage


It was a perfect slide into second base. Keith Harris was safe – but a small abrasion on his left leg would prove otherwise.

One month later in late August 2007, Harris, then 43, began experiencing muscle pain. The following Monday, during the course of the day he went from feeling as if he had a slight flu to having a 103-degree temperature.
His wife rushed him to a local hospital.

Two weeks of antibiotics lowered the fever, but Harris says he was in severe pain, unable to walk and wandering in and out of consciousness. “All of my organs had shut down,” he says. “It took three days to trace it back to the abrasion on the ball field, which had developed into a staph infection in my blood stream, eating away at my mitral valve. They did a transesophogeal echocardiogram and realized that someone would have to go into my heart to fix it. I was sent to the MGH.”

Says James Januzzi, MD, director of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, “This was a difficult situation. We needed to determine the appropriate timing of  the intervention. He had an infection with a bug that is not easily curable with antibiotics, and he quite clearly had rather substantial damage to his mitral valve.”

In addition to Januzzi, Harris had a team of doctors from the MGH departments of Cardiology, Infectious Disease, Neurology and Nephrology, but despite his comprehensive care, Harris’ sense of security was short-lived. A growth on a heart valve created by the staph infection broke away, traveled to his brain and triggered a stroke.

Surgery was the only option, says Januzzi. “With all these factors weighing against him, it was clear he was not going to survive if we did not operate.”

Two days after the stroke, Harris underwent open-heart surgery under the care of Thomas MacGillivray, MD, co-director of the MGH Thoracic Aortic Center and surgical director of the Adult Congenital Heart Disease Program.

“He had a mitral valve reconstruction,” says MacGillivray. “We found the valve was heavily infected but we were able to clean the valve and repair it without need for replacement. That distinction between repair and replacement is critical. If Keith’s mitral valve had been replaced, he would likely be facing another surgery within 10 to 20 years. Given that it was successfully repaired, he won’t need to worry.”

Less than a week after surgery, Harris was walking. He had lost some of the vision in his left eye and some of his cognitive ability but was amazed that his body was able to do so much, so soon. Although the recovery included some setbacks, by most standards Harris’ comeback was nothing short of miraculous. Last fall, he participated in a triathlon and this summer he is planning a solo ride on his bicycle from Seattle to Boston, 4,400 miles, over eight weeks, averaging approximately 85 miles per day.

“It is extremely gratifying to see such a healthy recovery after such a dire circumstance. I wish him the best and encourage as many patients as possible to follow his example,” Januzzi says.

Harris, who is turning 50 this year, says he hopes to raise money for charity and show his appreciation for all the people who supported and cared for him. Harris made the same solo trek back in 1992 going east to west – with the wind in his face. This time he says he will travel the opposite direction.

“It will be good to have the wind at my back. I didn’t come through this to go back to life as normal,” says Harris. “I came through it with the determination to do more than take up space. The emotion of the story is how many things had to go right – and how many people had to help – to be where I am today. Not everyone is so blessed.”

For more information about Harris and his journey, visit

Read more articles from the 03/07/14 Hotline issue.


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