Heart Transplant: Richard's Story

Richard (pictured) received a heart transplant at UW Hospital and Clinics. He recounts the experience in his own words below.
Richard, heart transplant recipient, UW Hospital and ClinicsIn 1990 I was the assistant girls softball coach at a high school in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. As coaches, we never expected the athletes to do anything we couldn't do. In the spring, when the weather was still cold, we would practice in the gym. Before practice began, warmup drills had to be done. One of the drills was to run laps around the gym. I ran laps right along with the girls, but after four or five laps my heart would start racing and I felt weak. I would lay down on the stage that was located at the far end of the gym. After a few minutes everything was back to normal and practice continued.
Not in my wildest dreams did I think this was the beginning of a major heart problem. Later that year, I was diagnosed with an enlarged heart. My doctor told me that my heart was attacked by a virus which had caused extensive damage. After many tests and medications everything seemed to be pretty much under control. In 1996, however, things took a turn for the worse. My heart got larger and the medications weren't helping.
That same year I was being treated for a condition called "frozen shoulders." During one of my treatments at the hospital I noticed a blue button on the wall. I asked my physical therapist what it was for, he said it was an emergency button for code blue, but they never had had to use it. The next week, while in the waiting room, I collapsed. The code blue button was pushed and the emergency team responded. They later told me that I had been shocked with the defibrillator six times before my heart responded and was put back into a normal rhythm. They also told me that if this would have happened any other place I probably would have died.
My wife, Diane, was told that they didn't expect me to live through the night but by late afternoon I regained consciousness and begin to ask questions. I remained in the ICU for three days and then was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in Marshfield. My doctor suggested that the best thing for me to do would be to have a defibrillator implanted to protect my heart from going into a racing mode. After the defibrillator was implanted there were times that my heart rate would drop too low, so a pacemaker was implanted as well. Now I was protected at both ends. If my heart raced the defibrillator fired, and if my heart rate was too slow, the pacemaker kicked in.
Living with the defibrillator I felt like a walking time bomb. I never knew when it was going to fire. It did save my life time and time again - 14 in all. About half the time I had passed out before it fired, but the other half I was conscious. It felt like a mule kicked me in the chest when it went off. Seven-hundred volts went through my body.
One day a call came from Marshfield telling me that I needed a heart transplant. I would be placed on status 2, meaning I could stay at home and wait for a donor heart. I would have to wear a pager, so if a heart became available they would page me and I would be taken by ambulance to University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison. After I found out that I would need to have a transplant, Diane and I had many long talks and shed many tears. She and my family gave me the inspiration to keep fighting and never give up. Without them, I know I would have never made it.
On a Saturday late in September 1996 I was grilling some food when the defibrillator fired and I collapsed. The doctor called Marshfield and they changed some of my medication and sent me home.
That was Sunday afternoon. Early Sunday evening I had another firing of the defibrillator and was taken back to Saint Michael's Hospital. Later that evening I was transported to St. Joseph's Hospital in Marshfield. The doctors again did some changes in my meds and sent me home. The defibrillator fired once again after that. The medication changes weren't helping.
On October 30, I got another firing from the defibrillator. Once again I was taken to Saint Michael's Hospital. I stayed there overnight and on October 31 I was transported to University of Wisconsin Hospital by ambulance and placed on status 1. This meant that the only way that I'd be able to leave the hospital was to get a transplant or they would carry me out. I preferred the first way. I waited at UW Hospital for seven weeks before my transplant. The stay didn't seem that long because they always kept me busy with exercises and attending lectures and doing many tests.
On December 23 Diane was able to come down and visit me along with my daughter Sheri and my mother-in-law. They all stayed with me until about 10:30 in the evening and returned back to the hotel.
At about 11pm, just as I was ready to turn in for the night, one of my doctors came into my room, sat down on the bed beside me and said, "Rich, I think we found a donor heart for you. Are you ready for this?"
I told him I was as ready as I would ever be.
Now things were starting to race through my mind. They were going to cut my heart out. What if the surgery wasn't a success? At 5:30am Christmas Eve morning they came to get me. My chest was opened and the doctors were waiting for the donor heart to come through the doors. I actually had three surgeries in one since my defibrillator and pacemaker were removed and the heart transplant were all done at the same time.
Surgery went really well. It was suppose to last about six hours but was completed in four hours. By 10:00 in the evening they had me standing by my bed. The next day they had me walking around in my room, and the third day I was walking in the halls.
Since my transplant I've lived to see my son and daughter get married. Scott and Kathy now have twins Jenna and Alex who are 8 years old, and Sheri and Wade have Morgan, who is 5 years old, and Mason, who is 9 months old.
When I had my surgery I had hoped I would be around for at least five years. Those years have come and gone. I'm now shooting for 20 years.