10 Years Ago I Had a Heart Transplant!


Last Saturday, November 23rd, was the tenth anniversary of my heart transplant.  I’ve told this story before on this blog, so this will be a recap of those posts with some added details and updates.  The whole experience has been like science fiction. I keep thinking the more time that passes since this miracle occurred will make it seem common place to me, but no. It still fills me with a wonder that is growing instead of decreasing. What an amazing world we inhabit in the 21st century.

Off and on I'd had an irregular heartbeat all my life, as had my mother. I'd assumed this was fairly common, but I was wrong. A cardiologist later told me that only about one percent of humans have such a problem. It never seemed to bother me much. When working out with weights, for example, if my heart became too erratic, I'd simply pause for a minute or so until it kicked back into a more normal rhythm. Whaleys are famous for ignoring important symptoms by rationalizing them away, a trait that’s killed more than one of us.

I had had a failing heart since 1999 when I developed atrial fibrillation and an enlarged heart. For the next ten years I was treated by a cardiologist at Ohio State University’s Ross Heart Hospital, and it was clear that I was on my way out. In January of 2009 I qualified for the heart transplant list, but because I was still able to get out and about, I was not high on the list. As recently as October I was told that the transplant would likely take place in 2010 (if it happened at all----people die on this list), perhaps in the spring.

It is one thing intellectually to think you are getting a heart transplant in 2010, and quite another in 2009 to have this 10:30 a.m. phone call (I was working at the computer) on Nov. 23rd: “Mr. Whaley, we have a heart for you.”

Oh, readers, that was the most startling sentence I’ve ever heard in my life, and my old heart started thumping in my chest as if it weren’t going to wait for the transplant but instead escape immediately, say through the throat.  It was one thing to think “next year” and another to realize that TODAYstay with me herethey were going to cut open my chest!!!  They were going to cut out my heart!!!  AND they were going to insert the heart of a stranger!!!

By midnight I had a new heart and eight days later I was home.  

Modern medicine works miracles so casually sometimes.

The surgeon who performed the operation that evening was Dr. Sun, called by the staff “our rock star,” who last September had done a transplant in two hours! (The normal one takes five or more hours). The heart they put in had come from Riverside Hospital, which is just around the corner from Ohio State's Ross Heart Hospital (which was good since hearts can come from as far away as New York). Dr. Sun was amazed that when the new heart was inserted and connected up it started beating as the blood flow was introduced without any outside stimulation, which is rare. But this 27 year old heart recognized what was happening right away  (“Oh, blood!  Just what I need!”), and it has continued to beat steadily for over ten years now.  The surgeon who fetched it from Riverside came by days later and told me that when he first saw it, he thought "that is a beautiful heart."  Since a heart is just a muscle (and thus gets bigger if forced to work harder) I was floored, but not surprised, to learn from a nurse who watched the operation that my old heart was three times larger than the one that replaced it!

When, after midnight, I awoke from the operation I was surrounded by nurses.  My mouth was filled with tubes and other medical items so I couldn’t talk, and I could feel the new heart beating steadily inside me.  The nurses were telling me to calm down and I wanted to do that, but I realized that the catheter that had been inserted into my penis was about to fall out and I would pee all over everything.  I tried to convey this information, only to be told again (and louder) to calm down.  I tried charades as a gambit but the nurses were not concentrating (and I missed Lorri Latek, my chosen sister, who is the queen of charades—she would have picked up on the issue immediately).  An eruption of urine solved the problem (though it created a minor new one) and things were quickly under control.  The nurses were terrific at getting me back to normal.  The next day I was eating, walking around, and behaving much as usual.  Exercises started, stairs were introduced into the regimen, friends came to visit, and, as I said, I went home on the eighth day.

I later told the medical miracle-workers who had done all of this that surely what they routinely do is the best kind of medical practice: their patients come to them dying and leave perfectly healthy!  Professionally it can’t get any better than that.

Much happened to me following the transplant of course, and my blog is filled with those stories.  They tell of me missing my own New Year’s Eve party that year because I was back in the hospital with an infection, learning who my donor was (see below), nearly dying in 2011 from a change in medication that caused my kidneys to fail and my weight to drop to 152, and then of regaining my health completely so that now, at age 76, I am in wonderful condition, working out regularly, married to a terrific man who takes good care of me, and, oh, so much more, like writing my first play that was given a professional production just last month!

Many thanks to the wonderful medical team (doctors, nurses, staff) who have cared for me so very well through all of this, and to my terrific family and friends who have had my back for so very long, and especially to David Vargo, my husband of seven years, who is ever my rock. 

Now, readers, look at this haunting picture:

I also reflect today on the life of Andrew Partsch, the 27 year-old doctoral student in Philosophy at Ohio State, whose tragic death on November 22, 2009, permitted me to live.  In the photo he is shown cleaning up after cooking a Thanksgiving dinner for his family and friends in 2008; he did not live to see Thanksgiving of the next year.  Not a day goes by but I think of him with gratitude for his heart and with sadness at his death (four people received five of his organs, and multiple others were given tissue transplants!).  I've become friends with his wonderful mother and stepfather, and my heart goes out to them and all his family on this, for them, sad day of remembrance. 

Now let's see if I can make it to the twentieth anniversary of this transplant in 2029.  That's my new goal.

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