For his 11th birthday, Joseph Gonzalez-Salas received a priceless gift: A new heart.
For three years, the Panama native had suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition that affects the heart’s ability to pump blood. Gonzalez-Salas received his new heart last July, but because transplant surgeries are not done in Panama, doctors at the Mayo Clinic requested he and his parents stay in Rochester, Minnesota for a year.
Finally, the now 12-year-old will find that one thing his new heart was missing: The feeling of being home in Panama.
“I thank God for this opportunity,” his mother, Michelle Salas, 45, told TODAY. “Joseph is very excited to return home together as a family.”
The past three years have been difficult for Gonzalez-Salas and his parents. In 2013, Gonzalez-Salas started to feel ill in Panama and received the diagnosis of dilated cardiomyopathy, the same condition his sister had died of at age 8, only seven months after being diagnosed.
Not wanting Gonzalez-Salas to suffer the same fate, his father, Ezequiel Gonzalez, did extensive research and discovered that the Mayo Clinic, which claims to be the largest integrated transplant provider in the U.S., was the best option for his young son.
The family was able to secure an appointment in January 2014, and the Mayo Clinic confirmed the same diagnosis Gonzalez-Salas had received in Panama. The next step was to determine if Gonzalez-Salas was a viable candidate for a heart transplant.
At that point, he and his family returned to their country to raise money for the test and when it determined he was a candidate, they continued to try to raise enough money for him to enter the transplant list.
Adding his name wasn’t the end of their fund-raising efforts. A heart transplant can cost up to $1 million, according to the National Foundation for Transplants.
Undeterred, the family held various events in Panama to raise money for the surgery. The story caught the eye of a local television station and thanks to the extra press, the family ultimately raised over $500,000 for the surgery.
Though they were comforted that they now could afford the surgery, Gonzalez-Salas’ wait for a new heart wasn’t easy.
In 2015, he wound up in the emergency room several times. Gonzalez-Salas suffered a heart failure in in June and was no longer able to walk. Luckily in July, the family’s prayers were answered and a heart transplant surgery was scheduled.
After a successful surgery and a year of being monitored by his team at the Mayo Clinic, Gonzalez-Salas will finally return home.
"Speaking for our surgeons, cardiologists, nurses, and the whole care team, it has been an honor to care for Joseph and his family over the last two years,” said Dr. Jonathan Johnson, Gonzalez-Salas’ pediatric cardiologist.
“Joseph, his brother and his parents have all become part of our Mayo family. He has done very well after the transplant, exceeding all expectations. We are so excited that he will be able to return home to Panama to see his extended family and friends again, and look forward to seeing him again."
When TODAY asked Gonzalez-Salas if he was excited to be going home, he replied with a succinct, “Yup!” A short answer to a long journey — with a very happy ending.