Finding a new rhythm

  • Published
  • By A1C Stefanie Torres
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
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, 388th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron assistant first sergeant, as he described the events that lead up to the moment he knew about his failing heart.

Sergeant Murray, who 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 Salt Lake City would be the emergency room.

Sergeant Murray's 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," said Sergeant Murray. "I was so sick I couldn't even carry my own laptop or walk to the other terminal during the layover."

Still, with the classic symptoms of heart failure, Sergeant Murray 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, Sergeant Murray's 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," said Sergeant Murray. "It looked like the part in the movie where all the students file in after the doctor and surround the bed."

The doctor asked Sergeant Murray if he had a history of heart conditions to which he answered "no." "Well you do now," the doctor told him.

Sergeant Murray was told about his condition, called congestive heart failure.

"I didn't know to the extent of what that was at the time," Sergeant Murray said, "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, Sergeant Murray 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," said Sergeant Murray.

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," said Sergeant Murray.

Exactly one year after he was diagnosed, the doctors didn't see the necessary improvements and felt Sergeant Murray's 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. His 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 Sergeant Murray's skin to deliver shocks to the heart when it 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," Sergeant Murray said. "They found in a test that the defibrillator went off once while I was sleeping."

Even with the defibrillator in place, Sergeant Murray's heart was still getting worse.

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

It was not until last summer that the determination was made that Sergeant Murray needed a heart transplant.

"The team of doctors told me that if I was thinking about longevity, then I would need a new heart," said Sergeant Murray. "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," Sergeant Murray said. "This gave us a chance to digest what was said and gave us an opportunity to seek other options."

Other options didn't seem to be the best thing at that point for Sergeant Murray and his family. He 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 Sergeant Murray in case a heart becomes available. 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," said Sergeant Murray. "The clock is ticking and you have to be able to respond."

But Sergeant Murray keeps a sense of humor about the whole situation as he waits for his new organ.

"I remember the beeper going off right before the Superbowl," Sergeant Murray said. "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," said Sergeant Murray. "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."

Sergeant Murray said it's not the surgery that is the worse part of the situation.

"The hardest thing about this whole process is the waiting," said Sergeant Murray. "But I thank God I am healthy enough to move and have great support from every direction."

Sergeant Murray 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, 75th Dental Squadron superintendent), has been there since day one," said Sergeant Murray. "I don't know what I would do without her. I derive my strength from her. It's incredible.

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

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," said Sergeant Murray. "I miss the flightline, but I love being the assistant first sergeant for the 388 AMXS"

With all that has impacted Sergeant Murray's life within the past year, he has taken a different perspective on life.

"You learn to appreciate everyday you wake up," he said. "Everyday is a good day. Why shouldn't it be?"

Everyday with his family and friends is a blessing, explained Sergeant Murray.

"Every moment is precious. I'm glad to be here," Sergeant Murray said.

Sergeant Murray enlisted in the Air Force in 1984, and is approaching 23 years of service.