Heart Transplant: David's Story

"For those of us who have had the good fortune to survive, each day is free, a day we would not have had otherwise."
- David, who underwent heart transplantation at UW Hospital and Clinics in 1994.
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David (pictured) received a heart transplant at UW Hospital and Clinics on August 28, 1994. He recounts the experience.
David, UW Health heart transplant recipientThe Problems Begin, and Continue to Return
I guess this all started in August 1978. I felt a little discomfort in my chest and down the inside of my left arm while helping a friend clear a fence line for firewood. After conferring with a doctor, he said that I was just pushing myself too hard, as usual. However, at an exam on April 26, 1979, the cardiologist said that I may have had a slight heart attack. After further examination, it was confirmed. I also had severe angina, probably caused by my heavy smoking and diet. Surgery would be the only answer to this problem.

Double bypass surgery was scheduled for May 10. I remember this as a very different experience. It was as if I was watching the surgery. Everything was white and very bright. I could hear voices in the distance, but it was too difficult to understand just what was said.

My health improved very rapidly following the operation, so I did not listen to all of the warnings about my diet. In the late 80s my chest pains started to return and they became more frequent with the slightest exertion. In 1979, I was told that there was nothing else that could be done because I had the heart of a 70-year-old. I believed them and ignored the pain.

Through late 1993, the pain was getting so severe I could no longer tolerate it. As a rule, I have a very high level of pain endurance, but this went far beyond anything that I have ever endured. I was taking 10 to 12 double shots of aerosol nitro a day. This accelerated the pain ten times before it would finally ease it. I finally made an appointment. After a brief exam, what the doctor said next put me back on my heels. He said, "See a cardiologist or die.” It was that simple.

A Second Surgery
On December 8, I checked into the hospital. The doctor reviewed the tests, and he insisted that I remain in the hospital to have another bypass operation. Later that evening, I was experiencing some chest discomfort. After checking me over, they put me back on an IV nitro drip. I then had a balloon pump placed in my aorta to take some of the workload off the heart, and to help it keep up with the demands that my body needed, even at rest.

December 10 started off with a quadruple bypass, but then a small problem arose - a small tear in the wall of the heart. They could not get the bleeding to stop, so the chest cavity was left open until the next morning. I was released from the hospital on the 16.

That night was one that I will never forget. Every time I would try to go to sleep, the same thing would appear. I would see beautiful green fields and lush green trees, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. As I was about to fall into what I though was sleep, I would be shocked by the appearance of baron wastelands with burnt tree trunks and faceless people who would always turn and walk away from me. I remember trying so very hard to make out who these people were, but their faces were not visible. This was kind of scary.

The next day my wife and daughter rushed me back to the trauma unit. I was diagnosed as having double pneumonia and congestive heart failure, and was placed in the coronary care unit again. They began injecting medication in the IV line to get the fluid off my lungs and out of my system. In a little less than two hours, about three quarts of fluids were expelled.

After 48 hours with no rest, I was sedated so I could finally sleep. On December 22, I was once again released from the hospital. After about a week, I was starting to feel a little more like living, but I continued to rest and relax. I would find out later that I was given less than a 15 percent chance of living.

The Heart Continues to Deteriorate
By February 1994, I was having chest pains again. On March 17, 1994 I underwent another catheterization, and this one revealed that the left side of the heart was deteriorating at a rapid pace. While resting afterwards, the doctor came into the room to talk about a transplant. I was not very receptive to the idea because of the operation I had just gone through. Nancy (David's wife) and I returned home that afternoon not saying too much to each other. Later that evening, I asked her what she thought of the idea. She responded, "You went this far. Why not talk to the doctor a little more?”

On March 24, I made an appointment to see the doctor. As he walked into the room, I said, "Get the ball rolling, and let’s go for transplant!” This took him totally by surprise, because the week before I was not so receptive to the idea. He said he would make the phone call and send the paper work to the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics to get the process started. On May 28, 1994 I was placed on the national waiting list.

Dr. Robert Mentzer, the head of the Cardiopulmonary Transplant Department, said the wait could be a week, a month or even a year. On August 2, 1994 I was transferred to UW Hospital by ambulance and placed in intensive care there.

The Waiting Game
On my second day in intensive care one of the nurses came into my room to inform me of a potential donor. About three hours later, a transplant coordinator came to inform me that the heart would be a risk, so I would still need to wait. On August 12, I was again informed of a potential heart. After being prepared for surgery, Dr. Canver came to inform me this heart was not right either. So the real wait began.

The worst part of waiting is having to be hooked up to two or three IV drips 24 hours a day. But I guess this is better than the alternative. This would be the daily routine until the morning of the 28th. At 12:15pm., Dr. Weber came to inform me that a donor had been found and they believed the heart was a perfect match. I asked how sure they were, and she said 99 percent. I said, "Let's get ready!"

The next thing I remember was waking up very cold, and shaking and bouncing around violently. I was back upstairs in the intensive care unit. By August 30, I was out of intensive care, and on the road to recovery with a new heart and a new lease on life.

Saying Thank You
On May 8, 1995, my name was legally changed from David F. Hilton Sr., to David Craig Hilton in honor of my donor, Craig, whose life was taken from him to save mine. I felt I should keep his name alive along with his heart that is keeping me alive. At the hearing were Craig’s mother, father, sister, uncles, aunts and cousins.

It has been 13 years now since the transplant, and other than a mild rejection in May of 1995, it has been a great and wonderful recovery. Other than the few side effects I've had from medications, life is back to normal. I play golf, enjoy life and do everything that I could do years before becoming so ill.
The side effects from the steroids are taking their toll on my body, but life is still beautiful, and I live every day to the fullest. For those of us who have had the good fortune to survive, each day is free, a day we would not have had otherwise.

Anyone who ever has any doubts about donating organs or having a transplant should see that both do work for most people involved. This is not a sure thing, but what in life is? God has surely blessed me.