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Heart Transplant Recipient Dave Tough Lives for ‘the Now’

Written by Zoe Engels, Contributing Writer and Editor

In early fall of 2016, Dave Tough found himself suddenly experiencing night sweats and shortness of breath when walking down the street. With the encouragement of his mom and a few friends, Dave went to the ER where doctors noted that he had the heart of an eighty-year-old—one that wasn’t pumping and working correctly.

Dave, who is a songwriter, producer, and Professor of Audio Engineering at Belmont University, had already successfully undergone cancer treatment five years prior. And, at the time he was in heart failure, Dave was also going through a divorce and working to obtain custody of his two-year-old son, so he found that there was a lot going on in his life alongside his sudden decline in health. He describes the emotional trauma of both health diagnoses as dissociative, “like watching a movie of someone else’s life.”

Doctors first tried to treat his heart with drugs and cardiac ablation, a procedure to treat heart rhythm problems. However, after approximately one month, they determined that these treatments would not work and told Dave he would need a new heart. He knew he didn’t have much time left; his ejection fraction measurement was low, meaning his heart wasn’t pumping out enough blood to his body with each beat, and he had to stay 24/7 in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU).

So, Dave was scheduled for surgery to get a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), used to help restore cardiac circulation in patients with end-stage heart failure.

According to the Frankel Cardiovascular Center at the University of Michigan, some patients with a ventricular assist device have survived up to thirteen years, and the expected survival continues to increase as technology continues to evolve and improve as well.

Due to an infection, Dave was forced to push back his scheduled LVAD surgery by two days. During that time frame, he ended up receiving the call that a new heart was available for him. He describes the situation as “a blessing,” with all the pieces falling together so that he could receive his new heart. The surgeon who performed the heart transplant would later tell Dave that, having seen it, his old heart would not actually have been a good candidate for LVAD.

All in all, it took five weeks from when Dave went to the CVICU to when he got the heart transplant at the Vanderbilt Transplant Center, which is one of the world’s busiest heart transplant centers. In 2022, they performed 123 adult heart transplants.

Dave said he began the rehabilitation process almost right away and was up and walking around a bit just twenty-four hours after surgery. By three months, he felt “pretty good” and now works out approximately four times a week to help maintain his health.

“When I got my heart, the old me was gone, and now I was given a new chance at life,” Dave told SODA via Zoom from his home in Nashville. “Every day is like an added bonus. It’s hard to explain because I would have been dead [seven] years ago, so every day is like a miracle.”

Having had cancer and heart failure, Dave now strives to live life for the now, not solely for the future. His advice for everyone is to wake up every day and try to do something that makes you happy, “because we don’t know what’ll happen—that’s life. It's the preciousness of life.”

His health journey has motivated him to consider what positive impact he is having on the world, both within and outside of his work as a professor, to make the most of this new chance and honor his donor, who he feels is now part of him as well.

Organ donation advocacy plays an important role in Dave’s life and new chance. He’s speaking out and sharing his story because he’s realized that many people are not familiar with organ donation (prior to his heart failure, Dave himself wasn’t familiar with organ donation beyond signing up at the DMV) or are afraid of it because they don’t understand the process or don’t want to consider their own mortality. He wants people to know that organ donation is a way to keep giving, even after you’re gone.

“Being a donor is a certain way to continue helping people after you aren’t here anymore, but actually you are here and still living, through others,” Dave said.

Since his transplant, Dave also notices that he’s much more empathetic and emotionally vulnerable and open than he used to be; as a songwriter and producer, he has more time to make things to move him; and he gets to enjoy being a father to his son who is now nine.

Dave in the music studio.

Dave encourages students who are passionate about organ donation to “keep on fighting” and “educating others on how easy it is to become an organ donor.”

“What do people have to lose by being organ donors?” he asked. “I don’t think they have much to lose. They have a lot to gain by being organ donors, and I’m here to tell you that I’m a beneficiary of that.”

If you’d like to advocate for organ, eye, and tissue donation by joining an organ donation nonprofit, apply to start a SODA chapter on your campus

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