Todd and the French family have been healing, growing and thriving since the operation a few years ago.

Milford family looks back on 10-year heart transplant odyssey

Jarek RutzCulture, Headlines

Todd and the French family have been healing, growing and thriving since the heart transplant operation a few years ago.

Todd and the French family have been healing, growing and thriving since the heart transplant operation a few years ago.

A Milford man diagnosed with a rare disease in 2014 said despair never took him over when he was waiting for a heart transplant. 

“There were ups and downs that the first year where everybody’s told there’s going to be bumps in the road,” said Todd French, “but we take it day at a time, and I work out with a personal trainer, who I give a ton of credit to for getting me back into the shape that I’m hoping to get back into. But overall, it’s just amazing how far we’ve come.”

Todd and his wife Lauren are both elementary school educators in the Milford School District.

With the power of community, the couple was able to raise almost $55,000 from more than 340 donors to help with a heart transplant operation, which was completed in November 2021. 

And now Todd is well enough to participate in national transplant games and poker competitions.

“We were expecting our second child, our daughter Penelope, and due to Todd’s condition deteriorating, he was hospitalized permanently until his transplant came through,” Lauren said, “which left me here, back in Milford, a couple hours away from Philly.”

Todd had been staying at Penn Hospital

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The couple grew up in Milford and graduated from the district’s high school. 

“The support we received was just unlike anything we had,” Lauren said. “Meal drop offs, people dropping things off for our son, people reaching out every day, just checking in on us.”

The family has always had strong faith, Todd said, that everything was going to work out, so although it was definitely a tough process, they never lost hope. 

They never got to the point of “what if something bad happens,” he said. 

“It was hard,” Lauren said. “The waiting part, it’s just the days were long, but looking back, it wasn’t that bad.”

Todd’s diagnosis was cardiac sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that can impact any organ, but is especially dangerous in the heart. 

It causes immune cells to form granulomas (tiny groups of white blood cells and tissue) in the heart, leading to arrhythmia and potential heart failure. 

A device that acts as a pacemaker and defibrillator was implanted in Todd’s heart to try to keep his heart beating in a normal rhythm. 

On Oct. 4, 2021, his internal defibrillator fired 22 times, which led to a visit to the emergency room and eventually Todd was transported to Penn again.

At that point, Penn said they were fast-tracking all of the processes to get listed for a heart process, and told the family Todd would be listed within the next couple days. 

“I was going to be placed on there somewhere in the middle, like as the list status 3 or 4, where you kind of stay home and you just wait,” Todd said, which can be a waiting period of up to a year. 

He was moved up to status 1A, which is right below status 1 and means the patient is in critical condition and needs the organ transplant as soon as possible. 

Just a few days later, the two got the call that there was a heart transplant available.

“Financially, we had met with somebody insurance wise, we both work, we’re both teachers, and work for the state, and that was a huge blessing, because we have amazing health insurance,” Lauren said, “but our main financial consultant, because of the type of transplant he had, all of his doctors wanted him out of work at least a year, and I was out on maternity leave, not working, he was out for an entire year of work.

That’s where the GoFundMe really helped, and Todd’s co-workers also donated plenty of days to cover his leave. 

“In Delaware, about 50% of those that have driver’s licenses or state IDs have said yes to organ donation, which is good, but it could be better,” said Todd Franzen, head of advocacy programs and events at Gift of Life Donor Program, an organ donation and tissue bank in Philadelphia.

It’s urgent to get those numbers up, he said, because that would mean a shorter wait time for people like Todd and a faster process for someone that desperately needs an operation to eventually get back to living their lives. 

“In Delaware, there’s about 300 people waiting for an organ transplant right now, most of whom are waiting for kidney transplant,” Franzen said. “Nationally, there’s about 100,000 people waiting for a transplant, and again, about 90,000 are waiting for kidney transplants, so there’s a lot of people like Todd and Lauren that are waiting for that call, and it’s just due to someone’s generosity.”

The French’s have since reached out to the family of the person who donated the heart. 

“I was told to wait a little bit, maybe six months to a year, before I wrote a letter, and the letter was kind of general, I wasn’t allowed to give specifics about who I am and that kind of stuff, but thanking them and trying to get in touch with them,” Todd said. 

Todd never heard back, but understands why. 

“It’s kind of putting the ball in their court, and understanding that not all families want to have that connection,” Todd said. “I would love that connection, but I never heard back, and I’m sure that happens, and that’s totally respectable, but I’m going to try again at some point, just to put it out there and see again, but understanding the grief that they went through as well.”

Lauren said she would love to connect with them, but also understands that circumstance might not be one in which they want to connect. She said it’s important for that family to know there’s no words to say how thankful she and her husband are for their decision and the gift it gave them.

Franzen said in his experience, not hearing back from donor families is far from unusual, but he said he’s spoken to donor families who say it’s incredibly meaningful to hear how an organ recipient is doing. 

Todd is competing in a friendly sporting competition, the 2024 Transplant Games of America, in Birmingham, Alabama that kicked off Friday and runs through Tuesday. 

The event provides transplant recipients with a national platform to honor their donors and show how much they can achieve post-transplantation, said Todd, who played golf and poker during the event.

“This is a good way to be competitive again, or for the first time, but I’m really looking forward to just meeting other people,” Todd said. “I haven’t had a chance to meet that many people, other than when I go up to my appointments, and I get to talk to some people that share similar stories, but I think it’s more of a get-together with people that are celebrating the same type of thing that you’re celebrating and hearing their stories.”

Franzen said the competition highlights the successes of organ donations and helps reinforce why they are so important, while also being a light-hearted few days of community camaraderie. 

“When Todd was really sick, we watched his health decrease significantly in the couple of years leading up to his transplant,” Lauren said. “So for me, and especially with the kids, seeing him be able to keep up with the kids and show them how to live a healthy life, and this is just another example of the kids seeing their dad do what he loves and be able to do it well, because he had this opportunity.”

Todd won the silver medal for the Texas Hold ‘Em poker Sunday, and will compete in golf Monday and Tuesday, July 8-9.

Todd starts in the fall in his new role as physical education and health teacher at Milford Senior High School, where he will also coach the golf and soccer teams.

He said he and his family’s lives progressively keep getting better.

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