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While waiting for a heart transplant, Matt received the invitation of a lifetime

Thanks to the efforts of a University of Minnesota Medical Center nurse and the generosity of a boat crew, heart transplant candidate Matt Johnson is looking forward to the sport fishing expedition of a lifetime.

Matt Johnson knows his boats. Sport fishing vessels, ocean-going yachts, cabin cruisers—name a boat and he can probably rattle off a few facts or industry anecdotes about it.  

But there’s one vessel that—for Johnson—stands head and shoulders above the rest: Fa La Me, a 92-foot Viking sport fishing boat that is well-known for its performance in international fishing tournaments, including winning the Bermuda Triple Crown in 2012, 2014 and 2017. Getting a chance to visit the boat and meet its crew would be “like a 14-year-old girl getting a meet-and-greet with Justin Bieber at a concert,” Johnson said.

So imagine Johnson’s reaction when the boat’s captain personally invited him to join the crew on a fishing trip. The trip will take place when Johnson, who is waiting for a heart transplant, is healthy enough to go.

The remarkable invitation wouldn’t have happened without the help of Johnson’s nurse, Avi Silver.

Johnson, who is 32 years old, was born with a congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. When Johnson was young, he underwent four open-heart surgeries to address the defect. The procedures stabilized Johnson’s health for many years, but in late 2017 he experienced an episode of cardiac arrest in an airport. Since Feb. 23, 2018, Johnson has been hospitalized at University of Minnesota Medical Center while he waits for a matching donor heart to become available.

The University of Minnesota Health heart transplant program is one of the oldest and most successful programs of its kind. Learn more about our transplant care.

During his time in the hospital, Johnson and Silver bonded over their shared love of fishing and boating. Silver has traveled to Bermuda to visit friends who compete against Fa La Me in fishing tournaments. With Johnson’s permission, she asked her friends to help her make a connection with Fa La Me’s captain, Rob Moore.

Silver asked the Fa La Me crew for a promotional t-shirt to give to Johnson. The crew was happy to oblige her t-shirt request, but Rob Moore and Fa La Me owners Frank and Mary Ellen Rodriguez had bigger plans. After learning about Johnson’s transplant journey, Moore shot a video on his smartphone and sent it to Silver and Johnson. In the video, Moore asked Johnson to join the crew on a fishing expedition when he has recovered from his heart transplant.

“We were so taken aback by Matt’s enthusiasm and how [the t-shirt] lifted his spirits we decided to take it a step further,” Rodriguez explained. “We extended an invitation via a video from Captain Rob Moore, that once Matt had completed his transplant and has been issued a release by his physicians that we would fly him wherever we might be fishing at the time and have him aboard as our VIP guest.”

“We wanted to shout-out to you and tell you that we want you to get better. And when you get better, you’re going to be sitting up here with us,” Moore said in the video, which was shot from the flybridge helm of Fa La Me.

Johnson was floored by the invite. “Boating is the most important thing in the world to me,” said Johnson. “This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

For now, Johnson continues to receive watchful care at University of Minnesota Medical Center from Cardiologists Cindy Martin, MD; Rebecca Cogswell, MD, NNP; and Tamas Alexy, MD, PhD; Thenappan Thenappan, MD; Marc Pritzker, MD; Forum Kamdar, MD; and Daniel Garry, MD, PhD—and Nurse Practitioners Kerry Sackman, Christie Newman, Meg Fraser and Dawn Bozicevich.

Johnson, Rodriguez and Moore have continued to exchange messages in recent weeks. Once Johnson has received his transplant and has fully recovered, they plan to make good on the invitation.

“Matt is truly deserving of any and all positivity and support,” Silver said. “Even as his time in the hospital extends into months, he remains patient, respectful, optimistic and inspiring to staff through his positive attitude and humor.”