Peoria teen honors heart transplant donor by living a full life on and off of the wrestling mat

Feb 2, 2024, 4:35 AM | Updated: 6:49 am

PHOENIX — At school and on the wrestling mat, he looks like any other 15-year-old. Many would never guess he was born with a life-threatening heart disease or that he would need a heart transplant before his first birthday.

Dylan McQueen was born with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart is larger than it should be and doesn’t work as well as it’s supposed to.

Although Dylan was too young to remember receiving his transplant, his mom Melissa McQueen has vivid memories.

“I’ll never forget it. I don’t think any parent forgets that day when you get the call … we got it at one in the morning,” McQueen told KTAR News 92.3 FM. “I, of course, got ready at record speed and drove safely to the hospital. We were so excited.”

How is the heart transplant recipient doing today?

That’s quite the contrast to where Dylan is today. He hasn’t just survived; he’s thrived. Now he’s a multi-sport athlete who competes in wrestling and track for Liberty High School in Peoria. He also previously played on the football and cross-country teams.

“I kind of take it as an opportunity to be able to live that I can be able to do all of these sports and all of these things,” Dylan said. “It’s just kind of a blessing.”

The wrestling practices are nearly non-stop and grueling, but that doesn’t stop Dylan.

Eric Brenton, the school’s head wrestling coach, said Dylan never uses his heart as an excuse even during the daily grueling practices.

“In wrestling, we have this phrase like once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy. When I look at Dylan, he’s having a heart transplant and going through the adversity that he has, he’s gone through the hardest thing,” Brenton said.

He said Dylan comes into the wrestling room with a smile on his face every day. As a heart transplant recipient, Dylan sees each day as a gift, Brenton added.

“He is what is right with sports,” Brenton said.

His level of athletic performance is ‘uncommon,’ doctor says

Dylan thinks of himself as just a normal kid, and that’s how his medical care team wants it.

Dr. Steve Zangwill, medical director of the Pediatric Heart Transplant Program at Phoenix Children’s, has been taking care of Dylan since he was six years old.

Zangwill said the goal is for healthy transplant recipients to be able to have similar results to Dylan, but it’s not always the case.

“It’s decidedly uncommon to achieve this level of athletic performance after a heart transplant, but I wouldn’t say that it’s near impossible or rare,” he said. “It’s just that Dylan has remained so committed to his own physical development and exercise that he’s able to get to this point.”

Dylan’s care team has been supportive of his athletic dreams. So has his family, even when it’s been hard to watch, such as when he started wrestling.

Mother of heart transplant recipient created a nonprofit

“You’re watching your child who’s fought symbolically through all of these other things, and here they are on the mat physically fighting,” McQueen said.

Still, she never stood in his way. “I didn’t want to tell him, ‘No you can’t do that. No, you can’t be that person because it’s hard for us,'” she said.

“You’re honoring your donor and your donor family by going out there and living the life you want to live. That’s what they did all of this for,” she added.

In fact, the inspiration she felt from seeing her son’s accomplishments spurred McQueen to create Transplant Families. Her nonprofit helps pediatric transplant recipients and their caregivers with resources, education and opportunities for advocacy.

Dylan said he wants to win a medal to bring back to Bob Meyer, the President and CEO of Phoenix Children’s. He also wants to make it clear that every kid with or without a medical problem can achieve their dreams.

“Don’t give up. Never quit on your dreams,” Dylan said. “Just always keep pushing forward and keep your eyes focused on that one thing that you really want.”

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Peoria teen honors heart transplant donor by living a full life on and off of the wrestling mat