30 Years of Heart
Hank Mihelcic spends a lot of time working in his yard. That doesn’t sound out of the ordinary until you learn that Mihelcic is 84. Even more amazing is the fact that 30 years ago, he received a new heart.
Mihelcic was the 29th adult patient to undergo a heart transplant at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, previously named Barnes Hospital. As he marks the 30th anniversary of his operation, the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center is celebrating more than 30 years of successful heart transplants. Since it began, the heart-transplant program has given almost 800 patients a new chance at life.
Mihelcic, a 25-year Air Force veteran, was 54 when he suffered a massive heart attack on April 18, 1986, which happened to be his 26th wedding anniversary. He was initially admitted to Scott Air Force Base Medical Center and later transferred to Barnes Hospital. On May 9, he was placed on the heart-transplant wait list.
“At the time, people didn’t know much about heart transplants,” Mihelcic says. “I thought it was the end for me.”
Just four days later, on May 13, he received his new heart. The operation was performed by R. Morton “Chip” Bolman III, MD.
A four-day wait time is almost unheard-of today, but in the early days of the heart-transplant program, it was normal. The hospital’s first heart-transplant recipient waited just one day to receive his new heart.
“In those days there were very few potential recipients and many more heart donors, but that’s completely different now,” Gregory Ewald, MD, a Washington University cardiologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the medical director of the hospital’s heart-transplant program says. “The number of organ donors has not changed much over time, but many more patients are waiting for a heart transplant. We are doing about 2,300 heart transplants each year in the United States. Promoting donor awareness and having people who are willing to donate their organs can make a big impact.”
Mihelcic describes his post-transplant recovery as “slow but sure” and says he has been in good health ever since. He returns to Barnes-Jewish Hospital for annual exams, and every day for 30 years he has faithfully taken his immunosuppressant medication to help prevent his body from rejecting his donor heart.
“When Mr. Mihelcic had his operation in 1986, there was no long-term experience with heart transplantation,” Ewald says. “In the early days of transplantation, patients were often told they might live five years.”
Though the surgical techniques used in heart transplantation haven’t changed much in the last 30 years, knowledge about immunosuppression—or keeping the body from rejecting the new heart—has grown.
“Today we have better medications and new ways to suppress the immune system,” Ewald says. “I think that’s why people are doing better and living longer.”
“Hank has done really well,” says Cindy Pasque, MSN, RN, Mihelcic’s current transplant nurse coordinator. “He’s done everything he’s supposed to do to take care of himself for the last 30 years, and he’s watched his children become successful and his grandchildren grow.”
Mihelcic’s connection with his doctors and nurses goes beyond his medical care. Along with Pasque, he spent several years playing on a Barnes-Jewish Hospital softball team made up of heart-transplant recipients and doctors and nurses from the heart-transplant program.
“At the time, it was thought that heart-transplant recipients couldn’t be very active,” Mihelcic says. “But there we were—playing on a softball team.”
They even competed against a team from Paducah, Kentucky, that was also composed of Barnes-Jewish heart-transplant patients.
Ewald says part of the reason for the heart-transplant program’s success over the past three decades is the fact that many of the physicians and staff have been here long term.
“We have been striving for the best outcomes for our patients ever since our heart-transplant program started more than 30 years ago,” he says. “It truly is a group effort, and our team, including physicians, surgeons and transplant nurse coordinators, is committed to excellence. There aren’t many programs that have a 30-year heart transplant survivor.”