A heart transplant journey

The daughter of Bill Hanna’s heart donor listens to her dad Ryan’s heartbeat last September in Wichita, Kan.

It was the summer of 1973 and dad had taken younger brother Tom to Metropolitan Stadium for an afternoon Minnesota Twins game.

But a nice sunny day at the second home of the Soo Line railroad man and his No. 3 son would not be hospitable on this July Sunday. 

A massive heart attack is a horrific intrusion on a pleasant day. 

A doctor at the Fairview Southdale Hospital had been clear from the start — there was nothing they could do for John Henry Hanna II to evade the inevitable prognosis.

He never left the hospital bed; never again felt the comfort of his corner of the living room couch; never ate another home-cooked meal.

Less than two weeks after the heart attack, my dad would be dead at age 59.

                                                    • • •

Forty-three years later on a pleasant August 2016 day, dad’s middle son just couldn’t shake a bad stomachache. No big deal, I thought. Perhaps rest from a good night’s sleep would soothe the tummy.

It was the worse stomach pain I’d ever had; maybe food poisoning; maybe a heating pad or ice pack will help, I told myself, trying to ease concerns that this could be really bad.

Sleep was mostly elusive — a few minutes here; a few there. Five, 10, 12, 15 minutes … time was moving in painful slow motion. 

Then dawn mercifully arrived.

I got to my feet, quickly dressed and headed out to the Virginia Regional Medical Center’s emergency room. I had been there the day before; given some fluids and told to come back if nothing improved by morning.

And back, I was. But this time the stomachache had a companion — shortness of breath so extreme that I could barely walk from the car I had driven to the emergency entrance.

Results from a quickly applied EKG were not good. 

Within minutes, LifeLink III was on its way and I was taking my first copter ride ever to Essentia Hospital in Duluth.

A remarkable journey — from near death several times to a second chance at life — had begun.

 • • •

  I had the illusion that a heart attack would leave me grabbing at my chest. That’s almost always in a TV show script. Never did I imagine that stomach pains would be such a prelude to what doctors at Essentia called the “widow maker.”

I recall drifting in and out of consciousness while on a table for a procedure and heard doctors talking about the severity of the situation.

“Can you do a bypass?” I said for anyone to hear and answer.

“We can’t get in,” was the reply.

That’s when I first thought that my dad’s fate would soon be mine, too.

 • • •

My second helicopter ride awaited me a week or so later

But this time I was not aware of my surroundings. I was out of it.

Nothing more could be done for me in Duluth, doctors had determined, and they connected with the University of Minnesota Medical Center-Fairview in Minneapolis.

Loved ones were at my bedside for several days during what seemed to be a death watch. I would find out later that that, indeed, was the case.

“Hey, lighten up, don’t worry, I’m not dying,” I wanted to reassure them. But that would have been useless. 

We all knew better. You don’t receive last rites if everything is going to be OK. A coma is not induced if things are going great.

A team of U of M physicians and our family met and it was decided the only immediate hope was something called an LVAD (Left Ventricle Assist Device) — in plain language a heart pump surgically implanted.

It carried its share of risks, and even if successful, I would forever wear each day a vest containing batteries to keep the LVAD pumping blood through my body and at night I would be tethered to a wall outlet for the LVAD while batteries were charging.

I would have a “driveline” leading to the batteries coming out of my belly, where a dressing would need to be changed daily under hospital-like sterile conditions.

But my dire condition made the decision for surgery an “either-or choice.” Either take a chance of a prolonged life by machine or die very soon.

My family had to make that decision for me, as I was no longer conscious and on temporary life support.

The surgery was successful; the LVAD was working. It was Sept. 2, 2016.

• • •

I was incredibly thankful, but now struggling to cope with the new normal of life powered by machine. 

I quickly shook myself of any self-sorrow.

I’ve always hated with a passion such a self-indulgent feeling.

Sunrises were still filled with the hope of new days. Sunsets were still wondrous. And love of life and family and friends now had an even deeper meaning.

Yes, life was very different but also very good.

Then a doctor asked me if I had thought of a heart transplant. I had not. It all seemed such a long shot and out of reach.

I was barely understanding of how the LVAD works let alone how my body would take to someone else’s heart pumping in my chest.

I then went through a battery of tests that would either clear me for the transplant list or rule it out as an option. I aced those tests and was listed in February 2017 on the transplant register that included several regional states.

Now, the wait for “the call” that I knew could be years away, if ever.

My blood type was rare — B-negative — which could be helpful because only 2 percent of the donor population has such a blood type. 

Thus, fewer people in need of a heart transplant would be on the list in my category. But, of course, the opposite was also true — fewer donors with my blood type would be available.

At about 11 a.m., April 5, 2017, “the call” came. 

A representative at the U of M hospital casually asked me how I was doing and what I was doing. I said fine; just getting ready to go work out.

He then said I needed to come down to the University of Minnesota Medical Center. 

I was a bit taken back. “Why?” I asked with some trepidation.

“Well, we have a heart for you,” he said.

The confluence of emotions was overwhelming. Excitement for knowing that soon I would be part of what is truly remarkable medical history; incredible gratitude for another chance of a better life; and sadness to be able to receive such a gift only because someone I didn’t even know had died and donated his organs.

It was all surreal. 

• • •

 Plans for a hurry-up, pre-transplant trip aboard a medical helicopter from Virginia to the University of Minnesota hospital would not be needed. My new heart would not arrive until later in the day after being transported in a hand-carried cooler on a flight from another state.

So, we took a sunny early spring three-hour drive that had become so routine from the Iron Range to Minneapolis for an operation to continue a journey that was anything but routine.

I enjoyed the ride. Sitting in the sunshine of the unseasonable warmth of the early-spring day. I was not anxious.

Any thoughts of health invincibility had been dashed months earlier when one evening, alone, I was jolted 67 times back to a lifesaving heartbeat by electrical paddles.

I checked into a room and was readied for the transplant operation. I waited and waited as family members gathered. God, I hate those hospital gowns.

During the last hour of April 5, 2017, I was wheeled down to pre-op. Family were allowed to wait with me.

A surprising calmness comforted my body like a cozy blanket. I didn’t think of the seriousness of the operation, but rather the privilege of being the patient of such gifted surgeons and their team.

“See you guys later,” I said with a thumbs up to loved ones as they headed to the waiting room. That would cover any outcome. 

It was April, 6, 2017. I was at peace.

I tried to tell the anesthetist to let the juice flow because “I don’t go to sleep easily. A hypnotist once …” I recall, never finishing the sentence.

Six hours later I had a new heart pumping strong and cascading blood throughout my body.

I had become the University’s 886th heart transplant. 

• • •

 One of my baseball heroes, Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins, had a heart transplant in December 2016. I had read that in the months afterwards he said that rehabbing from the heart transplant was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life.

I now understand what the great Hall of Fame athlete was saying.

The euphoria of rising to my feet with help to sit in a chair the same day of the transplant soon gave way to daily physical rehab.

There was a weakness I had never felt before. But fortunately I worked up enough strength to go from wheelchair to walker to walking with a cane to walking without aid in a matter of months.

The rehab continues. Strength is still working its way back.

There also were plenty of mental challenges that hitchhiked and caught a ride on this trek.

The familiar — and for me comfortable  — routine of a hectic job as executive editor at the Mesabi Daily News on the Iron Range was no more.

Debt is burdensome. The average cost of a heart transplant is $1.2 million to $1.8 million, with my price tag at the high end when the heart attack and heart pump are factored in, along with anti-rejection pills and other drugs for life.

And there have been some medical bumps along Recovery Road, including three hospital stays.

But the key word is life. I still have it. 

I still can embrace loved ones. I still can marvel at sunrises and sunsets or the albino squirrel that scoots about the apartment complex courtyard where I live. I can still laugh at the humor and even absurdities of life; and cry at its sadness. And I’m enjoying a Twins’ resurgence season and ready for some Vikings’ football. I still can write, which has been such an incredible gift never to be taken for granted. 

I can still experience all of that because of the extraordinary skills of the medical community in Duluth where I was first treated and then at the University of Minnesota Medical Center where I was revived often; and survived many times.

And, most importantly, for the grace of the Big Guy upstairs.

There are no words to adequately express my thanks and gratitude. 

• • •

 But who was the donor? 

I really wanted to know; and to meet that person’s family, if possible.

I knew it had to be mutual between donor’s family and recipient for that to happen. And often it doesn’t. Sometimes there are just too many competing emotions of all parties to overcome.

But my good fortune continued. I would be twice blessed.

LifeSource — which is an angel of an organization — served as a go-between to link me with the donor’s family.

I now have the heart of a young black man named Ryan from Wichita, Kan., beating within. 

He was 26 when his life tragically ended, allowing mine to go on. Bittersweet, indeed.

And I am in regular contact with Ryan’s mother, a sweetheart named Lynn, who lovingly calls me Mr. Bill.

Last September we drove the 827 miles to Wichita, which gave me plenty of additional time to worry about the reaction of Ryan’s family.

But my concerns that there might be some animosity or resistance — which would be understandable out of grief — that I was the person who now has Ryan’s heart as my lifeline had been foolish. 

There were nearly 20 of Ryan’s relatives in Lynn’s house. 

The reception was awesome beyond words. 

Any of my anxiety was quickly shooed away when Ryan’s younger brother asked if I had more rhythm now. “Yes, but that was a pretty low bar to clear,” I said. The room filled with laughter.

Ryan, you’ve got one heckuva family. They are beautiful and gracious and love you so. And they lined up to hear your strong heartbeat and smiled while once again listening to the sounds of our life — yours and mine.

Ryan, please know that the first thing I do each morning as my feet hit the floor is to thank you for your selfless gift of life.

• • •

I have found some welcome new normalcy in life, even though what was once normal changed forever when the heart attack came calling and a series of unbelievable events was set in motion.

We all live knowing we won’t escape death. It’s a part of the bargain of life. But it’s hard to explain the feeling of finality when coming face-to-face with your own mortality and living some more to talk about it.

I always liked the words of Tim McGraw in the song “Live Like You Were Dying,” which is about someone whose friend gets some bad medical news and how he reacted.

“And I loved deeper

“And I spoke sweeter

“And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying

“Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”

I just hope I’m living up to those words — every day.

Business North Contributor Bill Hanna, who has been a writer and editor in the newspaper business for more than 40 years, was a Reporter and Executive Editor at the Mesabi Daily News on the Iron Range from 1985 to 2016. He has won more than 50 state and national awards. He currently writes Sunday columns for the MDN Op/Ed section.