Heart Transplant: Donald's Story

"I proudly wear my t-shirt that says: 'Young at heart, other parts 37 years older.'"
- Donald, who had a heart transplant at UW Hospital in 1999
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On March 31, 1999, Donald (pictured) received a heart transplant - the first permanent ileostomy patient to receive a heart transplant at UW Hospital. Donald recounts the experience and how he's thrived since his transplant.
"I believe I first noticed my trouble starting in the 1970s. I remember I once went to the neighborhood hospital to give blood. After taking my blood pressure, the technician said she couldn't take any blood, as my pressure was so high that if she stuck a needle in my arm, the blood would spray the wall on the other side of the room.
"I saw my doctor and since then I've been on high blood pressure medication. My doctor told me that he was happy if he could keep it at 140 over 90, with the medication.
"Heart trouble runs in my family. My father had bypass surgery as well as three of my five brothers. I had a first cousin that had bypass surgery three times. I come from a family that isn't overweight, and we don't smoke.
"We owned a store, and I remember once as I was working, all of a sudden my arm went numb. I went to the doctor and was told I had experienced a heart attack. There was another time when we were bowling and another bowler had a heart attack. I only mention this, because after bowling the following week I felt so weak that I went to the doctor and found that I too had experienced a heart attack.
"Another time at a bowling banquet I couldn't hold a glass with only one hand. The next day I went and had it checked out and it was determined that I had a minor stroke.
Signs of trouble lead to five bypasses
"My doctor had me have an EKG. My doctor read it and had me wait for him to have a cardiologist look at it. After checking it out he decided that he wanted me to take a stress test. So, it was up to one of the upper floors where they do stress tests. When the test was almost over, something went haywire and I felt extremely dizzy.
"They wasted no time in admitting me to the hospital. They treated me in the hospital, and at one point, they put me on a 24-hour monitor. When they saw the results, they scheduled me for a cat-scan. When the cat-scan was complete, they started making plans to schedule me for bypass surgery, as I showed blockages.
"On April 7, 1993 I had five bypasses.
"I was continually under a doctor's care. During the next four years I was in the hospital two or three times. The last time, the cardiologist told my wife and me that there was nothing more she could do for me, and I should consider heart transplant surgery. She left the room so we could talk it over. It took about five minutes for us to decide to do it. When she returned, I told her we decided to "go for it."
"She told us she would contact the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, and send them my records and we should hear from them. I was scheduled for three days of testing and evaluation at the UW Hospital. I remember right after I was admitted to the hospital, a technician form the lab took 15 vials of blood.
"They took a heart biopsy by going through the groin. To be ready for this, I had changed my ileostomy appliance the night before (I had my ileostomy surgery in 1960). During the biopsy, my appliance came loose, and even though they were going in just about three inches below my stoma, they kept going. It turned out fine, but I must say that afterwards the nurses and I had quite a mess to clean up.
"The tests showed that three of the five bypasses were totally blocked again, and these only four years after the bypasses were done.
Waiting for a transplant
"After those three days we went home and waited for more test results. I got a phone call from the transplant coordinator and was told that if I was interested, they would put me on the transplant waiting list. Of course I said yes. I was given a beeper and told how far the beeper's range was, and to stay within that range.
"On March 30, 1999, while my wife was at work, I was up on the roof of the room addition that I had built, finishing putting the roofing shingles on it, when the wind blew the stepladder down. It was a good thing that I had taken a cordless phone with me. I called my wife and asked if she could leave work to come home and put the ladder back.
"I worked around the house while I waited for the call about a heart being available, but I would work slowly, and only when my wife was at work, as I knew she wouldn't let me do it if she were at home.
"I didn't think the heart would come, so I didn't think or worry about it. Then, on the same day I had been stranded on my roof, March 30, 1999, at ten minutes to midnight, after waiting for a year, four months and 10 days from the time I was put on the waiting list, the phone rang.
"I was in the bathroom getting ready for bed, I reached over to answer it (I had put a phone in the bathroom), and it was the heart transplant coordinator. She asked, 'What are you doing tonight?' To which I said, 'Nothing much.' She then said, 'Would you like to come and get your new heart?' To which I said, 'Sure.'
"We then had to look up the nearest ambulance service phone number and relay it to the coordinator so they could call them. If I would have called them, they would take me to the nearest hospital, and that wouldn't do.
"On the way to the hospital I was telling the paramedic jokes to pass the time. I feel I'm very lucky in the fact that I can usually stay calm and not think or worry about the surgeries when I go through them. I feel being in the right frame of mind makes all the difference in the world.
"On March 31, 1999, I received my new heart.
A quick recovery
"I don't remember too much about the next three days, as I was well out of it. But after that, recovery seemed to go real fast - I couldn't get over how little I noticed the pain and how good I started to feel. It was during this time that my daughter wanted to get a picture for me, and it was decided that I should act real sick for the camera. As I was posing for the cameras, a nurses' aid came in and saw what we were doing and said that I should behave or he'd give me an enema. He couldn't understand why we were laughing, as he didn't know I had the ileostomy, and with such, I have no rectum.
"After 19 days, I was released from the hospital. The doctors said I was the first permanent ileostomy patient they've done a heart transplant on at the UW Hospital. At one point there was some concern about medication and how well I would absorb it, as I don't have a colon, but they said I absorbed it real well.
"I remember that when I returned home form the hospital I was very weak. When I went up the three steps, I could barely make it. I had to grab the railing and pull myself up and have help from my wife.
"One thing that I noticed after the transplant is that I can now hear my heartbeat in my ears at all times. I haven't heard of anyone else say that they can do that. I can take my pulse by just looking at the second hand on a clock and count the beats that I hear.
"One time I was at my doctor's office for a check up, and the nurse was taking my vitals. At one point she was listening to my heart with the stethoscope when my heart all of a sudden slowed down, just like someone flipped a switch. When she was done I asked how she liked the sudden slow down of my heart. She had a very puzzled look on her face when she asked, 'How did you know that?'
"I wrote a letter to the donor's family. When I got no response after quite a bit of time, I wrote again. This time it paid off, as I received a letter in return. I met with my donor's mother once. She put her hand over my heart and said that she always wanted to do that.
"About three years after the transplant surgery, I disassembled the room addition and screen room that I had built, and we moved to our present location.
"Here, four years after the surgery, with very little help, I built an 11-by-28 foot room, with an 11-by-8 foot screen porch. About three years after that, I put a wall up to make the 11-by-28 foot room into two rooms, 10-by-8½ room and an 18-by-11 foot room. Then I built a 9-by-20 foot shed.
"I proudly wear my t-shirt that says, 'Young at heart, other parts 37 years older.' This means I currently have a 39-year-old heart in my 76-year-old body."