A heart attack. It’s the last thing a 17-year-old ever expects to experience. Especially an athlete. But on Feb. 9, 2014, the unthinkable happened to Diego Obregon Mendez. While playing soccer with friends, which he did on a regular basis, Diego suffered a massive heart attack. He was transported by ambulance to Children’s of Alabama. Once there, Dr. Jeffrey Alten, a pediatric critical care physician, had to perform CPR on him for an hour. After he was resuscitated, his parents were notified he had less than a one percent chance to survive. Less than one percent.
Because of the severe trauma his body experienced, many of his organs including his heart, lungs and kidneys were shutting down. So, in order to protect them, he was placed in a medically-induced coma. During his first five days at Children’s, he was also placed on the Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine which acted as his heart and lungs until he had surgery to receive a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD). The device functioned as the left part of his heart.
Diego was kept in the coma for three months to allow his organs to heal. When he finally regained consciousness, he was weak and had to slowly rebuild his strength. In fact, he needed several months of physical therapy just to get his body ready for the transplant surgeries.
“It’s a miracle that his brain was not affected after everything he went through,” said his mother, Liliana Mendez. “The LVAD and dialysis machines were critical in keeping him alive until he was able to receive a heart and kidney transplant.”
Dr. James K. Kirklin performed Diego’s heart transplant on Oct. 16. The next day, he received a kidney transplant, performed by Dr. Carlton Young. Following an extensive recovery period, which was nearly two months to the day of his transplant surgeries, Diego was returned home from Children’s CVICU and CCU (cardiac care unit).
This past year has been a long and grueling journey for both Diego and his family. “If I could send a message to the current patients at Children’s, it would be to never lose hope,” he said “If you’re going to make it through the hard times, you have to have hope.”
Her son’s illness inspired hope and faith in Liliana. “Diego was always positive throughout this whole process. I felt like it was God giving us His peace that it was going to be okay. Diego’s recovery is a miracle. It’s a complete miracle. I admire the medical team at Children’s of Alabama so much. They were truly the means that God used to save his life.”
Throughout his recovery, Diego formed strong relationships with the Children’s staff.
“I can’t single out one person,” he said, “because everyone did an amazing job. But to the doctors, surgeons, nurses and staff in both CVICU and on the 8th floor, I want to thank them all for everything they did. They saved my life, and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. In addition I am very thankful for the donor’s family, which I hope to meet in the future. Their contribution was essential to save my life.”
His story of perseverance and endurance has inspired many people around the world.
“So many people are amazed by my story,” he said. “People were praying for me all over the world—from here in the states to Colombia, Venezuela, Spain, and the U.K. In fact, my grandmother, uncle and cousins even came here from Colombia to be with our family while I was in the hospital. Plus, my sister Laura cancelled her spring term at college in Pennsylvania to be with me.”
“I believe in God,” he said. “Before all of this, I was a little doubtful, but after all of the miracles I saw there at the hospital, and after all that I survived, I know that there’s someone looking out for me. He gave me a second chance.”
Diego completed his senior year at Vestavia Hills High School in 2015. While in the hospital during his senior year, he was able to study with a tutor.