In March, Irvin went to the ER. If he had gone even 45 minutes later, he might have died.
In March, 26-year-old Denzel Irvin, knew something was wrong. The Winter Garden native was a star defensive back for Foundation Academy who later played Division I football for UNC-Charlotte. He now coaches at Butler High School in North Carolina.
At first, Irvin thought it was COVID-19. He had similar symptoms, but a subsequent test came back negative.
For about two weeks, he tried to tough it out. But on March 29, he couldn’t take it any longer.
“I had thrown up like 10 times that day, and I still went to work,” he said. “But I couldn’t go through the whole workout, and then I went to the hospital, because I just didn’t feel well.”
At Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, doctors told Irvin his heart was failing; it was only working at a 10% capacity. What’s more, Irvin had fluid building around his heart, in his lungs and filling his stomach.
And since then, he’s been at the hospital, waiting for a new heart.
It’s a shocking diagnosis for Irvin and his family. But, it could have been worse.
“If he would have been 45 minutes to an hour later, we would be having a different conversation,” his dad, Djuan Irvin, said. “(He) went into the intensive care unit. The (doctors) started moving very fast from that time. They put him on a medication that would flush all the extra fluid from around his heart, lungs and stomach. In the beginning process, during that time, they got him up to use a portable bathroom, and that’s when he ended up having a stroke.”
Fortunately, the nurse was able to identify the signals, and doctors rushed him into surgery.
“He was there before it could do a lot of damage,” his father said. “Thankfully, he didn’t receive any residual effects from that particular stroke.”
Besides the COVID-like symptoms, Denzel Irvin had no other indication his heart was failing.
“It was a little bit surreal, you know, I’m healthy,” Denzel Irvin said. “So for them to tell me that my heart was failing was kind of unbelievable. The most surreal thing is that they told me that my heart had been like this for months.”
Both his parents, Djuan and Gwendolyn Irvin, are currently with him, helping him and supporting him during his stay at the hospital.
“It’s been mostly spiritual support,” Djuan Irvin said. “We are people of faith, and as a result of us being people of faith, we raised him around the church and in the church. So a lot of times, when we get in ... a hard situation, we definitely turn back to our faith to see us to this process. We’ve been encouraging that if God got him to this, He’ll see Him through this.”
Denzel Irvin has about six different IVs, which doctors use to push different fluids into his body to help keep him stable.
“Each (intravenous) has a different function,” Djuan Irvin said. “He has a pole that he has to push around when he walks.”
Denzel Irvin’s days at the hospital are repetitive, and sleep is rare. Doctors are constantly coming into his room to either take an X-ray or ultrasound, or draw his blood to make sure he is not developing any blood clots that could potentially cause another stroke.
To help his heart function, Denzel Irvin has a balloon pump connected to his left arm around the area of his inside biceps.
“This is the fourth one, because they’ve been malfunctioning,” he said. “It goes into my arm and then up into my arteries and into my heart to help my heart function.”
According to the John Hopkins University, a balloon pump is an intra-aortic balloon pump, a type of therapeutic device that helps the heart pump more blood. The pump consists of a catheter that has a long balloon attached to the tip called the “intra-aortic balloon,” while the other end of the catheter attaches to a computer console. This console has a mechanism to inflate and deflate the balloon at the proper time when the heart beats.
The pump is generally inserted into the aorta, the large artery leaving the heart. In many cases, the procedure to insert the pump is done through a small cut on the upper leg, however Denzel Irvin’s pump was inserted into an artery through his arm to later be guided to his aorta.
Once inserted, the IABP can start doing its work. The balloon inflates when the heart relaxes, pushing blood flow back toward the coronary arteries that may have not been receiving enough blood without the pump. The balloon deflates when the heart contracts, allowing the heart to pump more blood out the body, using less energy.
The balloon pump is a short-term treatment doctors are using to keep Denzel Irvin steady during the time he remains in the hospital waiting for a new heart. The balloon is placed on a side of his bed.
Denzel Irvin has two communities supporting him and cheering for his prompt recovery; his hometown, Winter Garden, and his college town, Charlotte.
Foundation Academy Football Operations and Athletic Collegiate Placement Director Brad Lord remembers Denzel Irvin well.
“He was a leader here,” Lord said. “He’s a great young man. and I know he’s going to fight this.”
Denzel Irvin was the first Foundation Academy alumni to receive a Division I scholarship for football. He attended UNC and graduated in 2018.
“He was always looking to better everyone around him,” Lord said. “He was one of those players who made other players around him better and always was helpful to everyone. (He) was a great role model at our school.”
Currently, there is no timeframe for when Denzel Irvin could receive a new heart. He is on the transplant waiting list, to which he was added about a week ago.
“I don’t know where I am on the list,” he said. “They told me it could be weeks, months or days.”
Despite not being able to do any type of physical activity, taking short walks is a part of his daily routine.
“They want him to actually try to walk around the floor he is on and maybe do a lap or two to try to maintain some of his strength,” Djuan Irvin said. “Because being on the bed all day causes you to lose muscle mass and weight, and they say the stronger he is when he receives the heart, the better the procedure will go itself.”
His family is running a GoFundMe page, to help raise donations to help with medial expenses.
“We are helping him financially, because this put a big hit on his finances,” Djuan Irvin said. “As his parents, no matter how old he gets, he’s still my son.”
Denzel Irvin continues to have a very positive outlook despite his situation, his parents continue to lift his spirit up every day, and the communities that love him continue to offer their love to him and his family.
“I know Denzel is going to be fighting,” Lord said. “He comes from a strong family of faith, a great family. We know Denzel will be fighting out of this.”
In addition to his parents, Denzel Irvin’s support system includes his daughter, Maya Faith Irvin, 5, and his brother, Darius, with whom he played football at both Foundation and UNC.
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