Forever Young at Heart

by Jerry Young (wife of a heart transplant recipient)

My husband received a heart transplant in June, 1989. He had survived caridomyopathy for 14 years, while working more than full time and raising a family. We live in Montana, far from transplant centers, and never dreamed the opportunity of a transplant existed for him. He was 49 when he received his new heart at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

His experience is not typical of most recipients. He collapsed at work, was air lifted to the nearest large hospital for eval. then transferred to Salt Lake City. After a five-day evaluation for eligibility, he was told the medical board would meet and decide his condition the following Tuesday. However he was placed on the transplant network over the weekend, "just in case." Before midnight that very night, a heart became available. There was no other name to match with the available heart on the network. The whole experience was surreal. We had not had time to absorb the idea of transplant even. The anathesiologist arrived to prepare him for surgery singing "You gotta have heart......miles and miles and miles of heart!!!" People were so excited....everyone was running in all directions preparing for the big surgery. U of Utah was the #1 heart transplant hospital in the world at that time. It was like a great big party.

Finally, my 75-year-old mother shooed everyone out of the room and held my husband like a baby, soothing and comforting him, allowing him to make his final decision about the operation. Prayers were being sent from all the churches in our hometown. My husband and I had owned restaurant businesses for 20 years and were very visible in the community. Everyone knew him. Most people did not even know he had been ill all those years. He always refused to allow himself to be ill. He says if you think you are sick, you will be. We always feel we are walking on a tightrope, and when we think we will get "scared" we tell each other "don't look down."

Together we jumped full speed into learning about transplant life and all the necessary adaptations. His unfailing courage and strong will carried him through the first five months of confusion, pain of shingles, problems of vinchristin and a stroke he had suffered two years previously. He had volunteered for all the experimental examinations that were requested He took a medical leave of absence from his insurance agency for a total of 26 months. We traveled throughout Mexico and the U.S. on a two year celebration of life, as he adjusted to medications and all his frequent exams in Salt Lake.

He has been back at work full time for four years now and life has become as "normal" as it has ever been. He had been on so much medication for so many years before the transplant (lots of it experimental) that the 25-30 pills he takes every day now are just part of his routine. Fortunately he has always had insurance coverage and is not in the financial crisis of most transplants.

To look at him and watch the things he does no one would guess he has undergone a heart transplant. He did prepare his mind before the operation to be very accepting and loving towards the new heart. He does not feel that it is an alien part of him and he does not dwell on any "deep" questions of why he was allowed to get this heart while others have not been so fortunate. He just goes about his life being as kind to everyone as he always has and continuing to give of himself with all the strength he has. He does tire more easily than he did, but he is six years older now. So he takes a nap once in a while.

He says he wouldn't trade his problems for any of those of his friends. He feels he is incredibly lucky and blessed. I think his success is attributed to a spirit which will never give up, extremely strong emotional support from in-laws and family, and belief instilled in him as a child in the Salvation Army Church that God will take care of him. He believes that obviously what ever God has planned for him hasn't happened yet. I just hope and pray God's timetable is for the year 2030 at least. We have been together 35 years and another 35 would be great.

Due to the availability of the insurances, we are very careful about having all tests done often to try to catch a rejection immediately. He has blood tests twice a month, an echo monthly, a biopsy about three to four times a year, and an annual physical. If he has any symptoms of anything, he goes to a doctor immediately. If the local doctor hesitates or he is too slow responding to treatment, we go immediately to Salt Lake. He avoid obvious dangerous places with infected people, but he builds fences, rides horses, races horses, parasails and basically does anything he wants to.

I hope this rambling story will encourage others that life can continue and be very enjoyable after transplant surgery.

P.S. Was it worth it?

I can only respond from a spouse's point of view... Yes it's been worth it. My husband was 49 when he received his heart transplant. He had never given up after fourteen years of cardiac problems and was not about to give up then. Six years later he is working, playing, finishing the parenting of our teenage son (this is fun???) and enjoying a "normal" life. He says he wouldn't trade his life and troubles for anyone he knows. I have had the opportunity to enjoy watching him walk down the aisle with our lovely 24-year-old daughter last week. I never thought it would happen. I have been married for 35 years to this wonderful man and am planning for another 35 years.