“Every day is a gift:” 500th heart transplant patient celebrates milestone with gratitude
By Carolyn Kimmel
Not a day goes by that David Wheeler doesn’t think about the fact that the heart beating in his chest isn’t the one he began life with 56 years ago.
A former self-described workaholic, the Williamsport resident sounds almost poetic as he describes a new outlook on life.
“I lie in bed every morning and hear the birds chirping, the wind blowing, the smell of grass being cut,” said Wheeler, a maintenance man at a local container company for 23 years. “I think people take life for granted. I know I did. I thank God for every day I wake up.”
- Watch a video of Penn State Health heart transplant recipients “Sharing their Heart Stories.”
Wheeler’s heart transplant, which took place on June 23, marks the 500th heart transplant since Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center began doing the transplants in 1984. It’s the only hospital between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia that performs heart transplant surgery.
“It’s a significant milestone for us,” said Dr. Behzad Soleimani, surgical director of heart transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute. “Our longevity speaks to the quality of the work we do. Our one-year survival rate is more than 90 percent, which is among the best in the nation.”
Renowned for its mechanical heart therapies, the Medical Center also has been at the forefront of finding new ways to improve outcomes for heart transplant patients, including less invasive techniques to detect transplant rejection at the molecular level.
“Our patients are very complex, and it takes the dedication of the whole team working together for the best outcomes,” said Dr. Omaima Ali, cardiologist at the Heart and Vascular Institute and part of the transplant team that also includes surgeons, nurse coordinators, nurse practitioners, social workers, a financial counselor and pharmacists, along with support staff.
Often patients are followed for years before needing heart transplantation, and they receive follow-up care for the rest of their lives.
“That’s something that’s not seen in other areas of cardiac surgery,” Soleimani. “The trust and the friendships that develop are pretty remarkable and very gratifying.”
“The staff becomes like family because you’re there so long,” said Tammy Wheeler, David’s wife. “The whole experience is just absolutely amazing.”
Alex Shouey and Taylor Hodges, heart transplant coordinators and registered nurses, guide patients through the pre- and post-transplant process and serve as a liaison between patient and doctor.
“It’s a very rewarding job because we get to see these patients on a continuum, from their very sickest to living a whole new life,” Shouey said. “It’s very special to be part of that.”
Wheeler’s journey toward his new heart began in 2011 when he suffered a blood clot and received a pacemaker defibrillator. In the summer of 2017, Wheeler came to the Medical Center in cardiogenic shock and was placed on extra corporeal membrane oxygen therapy, or ECMO, a therapy used to support the heart and/or lungs in patients whose heart is too weak to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.
Once Wheeler gained strength, Soleimani placed a left-ventricle assist device, or LVAD, to help his heart pump blood throughout his body.
When a blood clot developed in his LVAD last spring, the Medical Center team stabilized him with a clot buster drug, and he became a priority for a transplant.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Wheeler said. “I had no choice.”
The first few weeks after transplant surgery were challenging as he faced side effects and was extremely weak, he said. However, his recovery is going well, and he continues to return to the Medical Center for regular heart biopsies to monitor any sign of rejection.
“To remember how sick David was and to see how well he is doing now—that makes those sleepless nights and hectic hours all worth it,” said Ali. “If patients are compliant with their anti-rejection medicine and close follow-up by our team, there are no limitations on what they can do. We have patients who are more than 20 years out and doing great, and some are running marathons.”
At the Heart and Vascular Institute’s annual reunion of heart transplant patients, each patient wears the number of their transplant on their nametag—and it’s always rewarding to see those wearing low numbers still going strong right next to more recent transplant patients, Hodges said.
“I’m so excited to be in this job and see the milestone number of 500,” she said. “I hope to be part of number 501 to 1,000.”
Soleimani says the experience of transplanting a heart never becomes ordinary.
“When you take a patient’s diseased heart out of the chest, and you look at this empty space and then you replace it with this new heart that comes in on ice, warms up and starts sustaining the life of this patient—that never gets old,” he said.
It also makes the most of a heart donor’s tragic situation when he or she has often died prematurely, he said.
“We get all the credit as surgeons, but the real heroes are the patients and their families who have such courage and resilience, and the donors who give someone else a new life,” he said.
For David Wheeler, that new life includes simple joys—like being able to take a shower and go fishing now that he isn’t connected to an LVAD that can’t get wet—and much deeper blessings.
“I’ll be able to pick up my grandchildren and be around to be their grandpa,” he said. “This life is an overwhelming gift from God and from my donor.”
Sometimes, Wheeler admits, the thought of that life lost tempers his joy.
“There’s another family out there who lost a loved one,” he said “He was in his 20s, and I’m halfway to being an old man. Why do I get to live and he doesn’t? All I can say is ‘thank you.’ If I could, I would give him a big hug.”
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