A change of heart

Written by James Combs

Although his ticker was once a ticking time bomb, the beat goes on for a Mount Dora man who thrives in the gym.

When 32-year-old Jbo Harrison struts into Mount Dora’s Fitness CF, grown men and women freeze in amazement. They admire his powerful frame. They stare in awe as he deadlifts 495 pounds, squats 405 pounds, and bench presses 355 pounds.

The gym is his home away from home, and his reward is a perfectly sculpted body—rippling six-pack abs, bulging biceps, and muscular legs.

But the physical feature that defines Jbo the most is a large scar that runs the length of his chest. It tells a dramatic story of a man who overcame a debilitating health condition that left him on death’s doorstep.

Those who hear his inspiring story would never question Jbo’s heart, even if the one beating in his chest once belonged to someone else.

Jbo is a personal trainer. He’s also a heart transplant survivor. For several years, anguish and pain were constant companions as he traveled the tumultuous terrain of a heart transplant journey. This is the guy who once needed a machine to maintain his heart’s pumping ability. This is the guy who less than five years ago endured two breastbone-splitting heart surgeries. This is the guy who opted for death because his muscular frame had whittled away to nothing.

Through it all, he persevered and returned to a full, active life. He may not outlive some family members and friends—the American Heart Association says the median heart transplant survival rate is eight to 12 years—but life expectancy is the last thing on his mind. In fact, he already has elected not to undergo a second heart transplant operation. He’s just thankful for each new day and focuses on living the remainder of his life with purpose and passion.

“My biggest achievement is being a father to my daughter, Harper Sparrow Harrison, who recently turned 3. She brings an incredible amount of joy to my life.”

–Jbo Harrison

“I plan to get 20 years out of this heart,” he says. “By then, there will be many others out there needing a new heart. I don’t want to be greedy since I’ve already been given a heart that extended my life. Everybody has a timeline in life, but most people don’t know their timeline. I know my timeline. Every day I wake up is another day counting down to that 20-year mark. That alone fuels me to spend time in the gym and do what I love doing because we don’t know what tomorrow holds.”

Life throws a curveball

Jbo, a native of Auburn, Alabama, became an avid fitness enthusiast at age 15 when he began training under the legendary Bill Kazmaier, who won three World’s Strongest Man titles.

Within several years, Jbo appeared in three bodybuilding competitions, allowing him to display his awesome physique and express himself from the heart, much like a dancer does at a recital. He continued his strict weightlifting and fitness regimen while serving four years in the United States Marine Corps and well into his 20s.

Then, on Nov. 7, 2012, life changed in a heartbeat. That morning, Jbo visited the gym and completed a 495-pound dead lift. Several hours later, he landed in the emergency room after coughing up blood and experiencing shortness of breath.

“My lungs were full of fluid, and my blood pressure was 60/30,” he says. “I felt terrible.”

Like his other muscles, his heart had become enlarged—nearly three times its normal size. Jbo, then 26, was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy, a progressive disease where the heart’s ability to pump blood is weakened, causing the heart muscle to begin dying.

Jbo was hospitalized again in late November that year and eventually transported via jet to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, where doctors could better monitor and care for his failing heart. Doctors counseled him he would need a heart transplant but would first need to undergo a surgery to have a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) implanted. The mechanical pump keeps patients alive until a donor heart is found.

His rapidly progressing condition left him bedridden and unable to work. Jbo lost it all—his bodybuilding, his freedom, and his desire to live. He opted against the LVAD surgery and instead chose to be transported to the hospital’s hospice unit, where doctors could keep him sedated and pain-free for the last few days of his life.

For him, death was a far better option than adapting to a new reality.

“Doctors told me with the LVAD surgery, I couldn’t drive, couldn’t be by myself, and couldn’t lift weights the way I used to,” he says. “If I’m going to live life, I’m going to live it how I’m used to doing it. I don’t do anything half-assed; I’m certainly not going to live life half-assed.”

Then came a last-minute, life-saving plea from his father, Melvin Harrison.

“I came home from the hospital on a Friday to pay a few bills, and I talked to my mom about Jbo,” says Melvin, a retired police captain with the Opelika Police Department in Alabama. “She told me to go back to the hospital and tell him to have the procedure done. So I went back and said, ‘How can you drift off peacefully and stand in front of your maker when He’s giving you a life-saving apparatus?’”

Jbo, who was raised solely by his father, was touched by those heartfelt words and agreed to undergo surgery. A teary-eyed Melvin sprinted to the nurse’s station and shared the good news.

“We were all ecstatic,” Melvin recalls. “I called my mom and she started crying. It was the happiest moment of my life. The nurses brought in grape juice, and we all toasted each other to celebrate Jbo’s decision.”

He has no pulse

For Jbo, the decision came in the nick of time. His heart failure was considered end-stage, meaning the disease no longer responded to conventional therapies such as medication. Had he waited several more days, doctors said his heart would’ve been in such bad shape that the surgery no longer would have been an option.

Still, he wasn’t optimistic going into the procedure in January 2013.

“The nurses started shaving me and rubbing me with a disinfectant, and I said it won’t matter because I’m going to die in surgery,” Jbo says. “When I woke up and saw a bright light and white ceiling tiles, I said to myself, ‘I made it to heaven.’ Then I felt excruciating pain and said, ‘Damn, I’m in hell.’ Then a nurse leaned her head over me and told me, ‘Hi.’ I said, ‘Holy crap, I’m alive!’”

Alive, yes. Comfortable, no. A tangle of tubes, IVs, and machines were attached to all parts of his body—a large catheter in his neck to monitor pressure in his heart, IVs in his arms to deliver medications, and a catheter in his bladder to drain urine. The intrusive surgery also left him with chest discomfort because doctors had to crack his sternum to implant the device.

He lay bedridden for weeks.

“After the surgery, I held some resentment toward my dad,” Jbo says. “I felt like a shell of a man. I was down to 193 pounds, which is the smallest I had ever been in my adult life.”

He also had to accept that his heart no longer produced a natural pulse. The LVAD helps the main pumping chamber of the heart—the left ventricle—circulate blood to the rest of the body. A cable inserted through the skin connects the pump to a control unit and battery pack worn outside his body. Quite literally, it was his lifeline until a donor heart could be found.

“It was like being a kid again because I had to take 50 pills and also had to carry around a huge battery pack whenever I got out of bed because the LVAD has to be plugged in and charged at all times,” Jbo says.

After some time, though, the extra effort was no longer an inconvenience because of what the pump provided in exchange: a ticket out of the hospital and a return to freedom and some sense of normalcy. He was discharged in late February 2013, marking the first time he had been out of a hospital in four months. He soon returned to a familiar place—the gym.

“At first, I was embarrassed to work out with a battery pack attached to my body,” he says. “However, it got to the point where I no longer gave a damn what others thought. I learned how to live with it, and after a while it really wasn’t that bad. I was back doing what I loved. I had a doctor’s appointment every 30 days, and if my numbers were off, they would hospitalize me. When I was in the hospital, I worked out with medicine balls.”

The gift of a lifetime

Jbo, who turned 27 in the hospital, was getting ready to go to the gym in July 2013 when the phone rang.

“We’ve found a heart,” the caller on the other end informed him. “Do you want it?”

He responded, “Absolutely!”

The average wait time between LVAD surgery and heart transplant surgery is 180 days. For Jbo, it took 179 days. Some might call it coincidence or good luck. Melvin Harrison calls it divine intervention.

Melvin had lost his 83-year-old mother two months earlier.

“Before her death, she told me that she’d love to be around to see Jbo get a new heart,” Melvin says. “However, she said that if she did die, she was going to go to heaven and lobby God for a new heart for Jbo. The day after we buried her, UAB called and said they have a donor heart.”

Unfortunately, that donor heart went to another patient. But when Melvin drove his son to UAB Hospital in July, he knew this time would be different thanks to a “sign from above.”

“During the drive to the hospital, it was raining but the sun was shining,” Melvin says. “I looked at Jbo and told him that the rain is tears from heaven from the person donating the heart, and the sunshine represents a new life for you.”

The donor heart matched. Jbo was wheeled into the operating room and seven hours later had a new heart. He spent several days in the coronary care unit hooked to intravenous medications to suppress the immune system and prevent rejection of the donor heart. In addition, he underwent repeated heart biopsies to monitor for signs of rejection.

After a six-week hospital stay, nothing was going to keep him from getting back to the gym.

“The first day after I got out of the hospital, I told my dad I’m driving to the gym. My tags had expired, and I had no insurance. My dad begged me to let him ride along. I said, ‘OK, but don’t touch my radio, don’t tell me I’m driving too slow, and don’t touch the windows,’” Jbo says. “I was on the treadmill for seven minutes and got winded. I went back home and slept.”

New heart, new inspiration

Melvin gave his son an emotional, uplifting speech shortly after Jbo returned home.

“After his heart transplant, I reminded him that I was in a bad motorcycle accident in 2009,” Melvin says. “I should’ve been killed, but God left me on this planet for a reason. I told him that reason was so that I could go through this ordeal with you every step of the way. Then I told him that God kept you on this earth for a reason and it will be revealed. There’s something special in life you’re supposed to do.”

Those words proved prophetic when Jbo settled in Mount Dora four months after his surgery. He moved there because he met a woman online, but it was his new career that ultimately won his heart. Jbo became a personal trainer at Fitness CF. Instead of focusing solely on himself, he now helps others become healthy and physically fit.

“I’ve always been into working out,” he says. “Fitness is my calling. I enjoy helping people reach their goals. It’s something I feel comfortable doing, and I’m pretty good at it.”

Kevin Rockwell agrees. The 25-year-old teacher at Triangle Elementary School in Mount Dora began training under Jbo four months ago in hopes of losing weight before his wedding in July. So far, he has shed 16 pounds.

“When I was filling out my paperwork to join the gym, I asked one of the employees who he would recommend for a personal trainer,” Kevin says. “Without hesitation, he said, ‘Jbo’s the guy you want to see.’ He’s a very fun guy, and he’s always upbeat and walking around the gym high-fiving everyone. I don’t think of him as a heart transplant survivor; I think of him as Jbo.”

He even invited Jbo to speak to his second-grade class.

“I always talk to my class about him, and my students keep asking when he’s going to come,” Kevin says.

Jennifer Elkins, a 46-year-old Tavares resident, has equal admiration for Jbo. She began training under him two years ago and has lost 35 pounds.

“Considering everything he has been through and what he looks like today helps me realize there are no good excuses not to work out,” she says. “I told Jbo in the beginning that if I ever get bored I would stop coming. Training under him is never boring because he mixes things up and keeps me motivated. Anyone who trains under him is a lucky person.”

Jbo leads by example, spending six days a week lifting, power squatting, and sweating his way to the sculpted, powerful body he has today. Sometimes it’s to the chagrin of friends worried about him damaging his heart.

“I just agree with them because there’s no sense in arguing,” he says. “I tell people I’m too dumb to die. We only have one life, and I spent enough time in the Marines having to listen to others telling me what to do. Nothing is going to keep me out of the gym. Considering all things, I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m fitter than a lot of people who have no health issues.”

That was evident at a powerlifting competition in December, where Jbo took first place in his weight class after deadlifting 525 pounds.

Inside his powerful body once pumped a heart with half the strength of an average man’s.

Today, he has the heart of a champion.



About the author

James Combs

Akers Media Group's James Combs has been a staff writer for several local publications since August 2000. He has had the privilege of interviewing some of Lake County’s many fascinating residents—from innovative business owners to heroic war veterans—and bringing their stories to life. A resident of Lake County since 1986, James recently embarked on a journey to lead a healthier lifestyle. He has lost 60 pounds and walks nearly five miles a day. In his spare time, he enjoys target shooting, skeet shooting and watching his beloved Kentucky Wildcats!

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