By Alison Trinidad

Joe Alerta received the gift of a lifetime for his 23rd birthday — a new heart. “I’m feeling pretty brand new,” says the North Hollywood, Calif., music engineer and aspiring hip-hop artist.

Dubbed the “miracle boy” of the fourth-floor intensive care unit at Keck Hospital of USC, Joe’s strength and will to live surpassed his doctors’ expectations. His future certainly looked bleak when he was admitted to Keck in November 2012.

Suffering from congestive heart failure, the young man survived a five-month roller coaster of setbacks, enduring several open-heart surgeries and dual mechanical heart pumps that kept his blood flowing until a donor heart became available. His friends and family became welcome fixtures at the hospital, spending the holidays with hospital staff and other patients on the unit. The staff even hosted a baby shower for Joe’s brother and a birthday party for his mom.

“I became very close to a lot of the nurses, doctors and therapists, like I was building another family,” Joe says. “The care was amazing. I say it’s the best in the world. Being able to survive the condition that I had, I was thankful that I was at Keck Hospital rather than anywhere else.”

Ultimately landing in the care of the USC Cardiac Transplant Team, Joe received his new heart on Easter Sunday. He was discharged on April 23, three days shy of his birthday.

Joe’s road to recovery won’t be easy, with regular check-ups to make sure his body isn’t rejecting the heart and physical therapy sessions to build his stamina. But Joe remains optimistic.

“The doctors were surprised at how fast my wound healed,” he says. “I have more energy. I feel like I’m getting stronger. So far, everything is good.”

To schedule an appointment or for additional information about the Heart Transplantation Program in the USC Transplant Institute, call 323-442-6077.