Twenty-five: A Magic Number
It’s exciting when someone celebrates their 25th birthday. A quarter of a century! It’s monumental when a couple commemorates their 25th wedding anniversary. Silver! But imagine spending 25 years living with someone else’s heart.
Bill Geyer is one of only a handful of people in the world who knows what that feels like. In 1985, Geyer had a heart transplant at California Pacific Medical Center and last fall, 90 of Geyer’s friends and family gathered to celebrate his 25 year anniversary.
“At times, I wonder if they even did the transplant surgery because it is working so well!” marvels Geyer. “I know I had the surgery, but I still think ‘When is this ever going to give me a problem?’”
“This happens so infrequently,” explains G. James Avery, M.D., Surgical Director of Heart Transplantation, who was part of the team at CPMC when Geyer had his surgery in 1985. “The match [of his donor heart] was very good. Because of that, we’ve had to treat only two major rejection episodes [over 25 years], so there has been very little impact to his body from complications of immunosuppression drugs, like development of tumors or renal insufficiency.” Doctors determine when a patient has a “rejection episode” by regularly taking a biopsy of muscle from the right ventricular myocardium. If there is no evidence of cell death, there has been no rejection episode. If there is evidence, the severity is graded by a pathologist and doctors respond by increasing immune suppression medications. It is incredibly rare to have a perfect donor match with no rejections.
Although 64-year old Geyer is the reining champ, CPMC is on par with the national average: 50% of patients live 10 years and 33% live 20 years. Since the program began in 1984, we’ve transplanted more than 400 hearts. Twelve people have lived more than 20 years, many of them still incredibly active. While Geyer runs his own business, Livermore Trophies and Tees, another patient no one wanted to transplant in 1990 – he was diabetic and 67 years old – is now nearly 90, and celebrates being both a heart transplant and Pearl Harbor survivor. Bob Jennings, now 71 and 15 years post-transplant, went sky-diving for the first time at the age of 70 – in large part to honor his donor, a 22-year old woman who had made 100 jumps. “I made it 101!” he says proudly.
Cardiologist Ernest Haeusslein is the Medical Director of the Heart Failure and Transplant Program: “We tend to be very hands on in the long term care management of our patients. Unlike other transplant programs, we follow our patients forever. We work with the patient’s primary care physician and share on-going management of the patient’s health. Other programs only see a patient after surgery if there is a problem.
“Not only that, but every medical decision once a patient has been transplanted is made by me – not three people with three different opinions. For the past 21 years we’ve had the same cardiologist and same three nurses treating heart transplant patients. So we have incredible experience, incredible consistency and we pay a great deal of attention to details – and that’s why our patients have better long-term results.”
Says Geyer: “I like dealing only with Ernie [Haeusslein]. He’s a lot of fun – we kid around. But he checks me out thoroughly and tells me if something is too high or too low, asks about my exercise program. He really cares.”
Geyer, who now volunteers as a spokesman for organ donation, received his donor heart from a 19-year old boy from Fresno. But it’s not the donor’s age that’s important – it is the match, and how long the recipient patient’s body goes without rejecting this foreign object. Geyer understands that. “It can always go into rejection, so I’ll be on medication for rest of life. I make sure I don’t miss taking my meds. I don’t take anything for granted. I follow all the procedures the CPMC Transplant Program suggests – they know best.
“I set goals now. I want to be there when someone in my family, my sons and their kids, accomplish something. Right now, my goal is seeing my oldest granddaughter graduate from high school in 2015 and I especially am looking forward to celebrating my 50th wedding anniversary with my wife, Dianna, in 2017. This whole process does not work without your spouse being at your side.”
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California Pacific's Heart and Vascular Center
California Pacific's Heart and Vascular Center is supported by one of the best heart hospital/center networks in the USA, offering quality, comprehensive patient-centered cardiovascular care by a team of top heart surgeons and physicians with leading-edge technology. Serving the entire San Francisco Bay Area, including San Francisco and Marin County, as well as the entire Northern California region, our team has many of the best cardiovascular surgeons and physicians in California and the United States.
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Both groups are open to any CPMC patient who is going through evaluation for heart transplant, on the waiting list or post-transplant. Family members and friends are welcome. The group has an open format, with participants sharing their stories or whatever is on their mind. The overall focus is on mutual support, reducing feelings of isolation, adjustment to illness issues and dealing with post-transplant complications. Explains Toohey: “It's amazing how powerful listening to other people's stories can be...providing perspective, hope and sometimes just plain old reality-testing.”