Larry Hartwell, the first patient to receive a heart transplant at Intermountain Medical Center, was walking down the hall Wednesday morning, stopping to hold doors for people, just hours after leaving intensive care. Two more days, he says, and he'll be able to go "home" to the apartment he rented in Murray to be near the hospital.
When Hartwell, 54, who lives in Shoshone, Wyo., took up temporary residence in Utah a few weeks ago, he figured the time might be coming when he would have to have a new heart or die. He had been diagnosed in 2003 with cardiomyopathy, the cause unknown. But for a long time, he managed to function as a maintenance supervisor in a Wyoming school district, and his heart failure was controlled enough that he hoped he could make it without a transplant. Only recently, he said, little tasks like breathing and moving around had become very difficult.
On Nov. 5, he went to IMC for an examination and was hospitalized because his blood pressure was way up. Doctors upgraded him from a level 2 on the heart transplant waiting list to a level 1. And his children Brandon, 20, and Kayla, 17, came to visit for a couple of days.
He was expecting some medical tests and medicine adjustments. Instead, the night of Nov. 7 he got the call that a heart was available. He reached his kids, who had left just hours before to return to Wyoming. He caught them, he said, at a gas station and asked them how they would feel about coming back a trip they made immediately with their mom, Hartwell's ex-wife.
Dr. Stephen E. Clayson has done a lot of heart transplants. What worried him was the possibility that the donor heart would arrive during rush hour and have to make a slow trip through gridlock from the airport. It did arrive during rush hour, but a Life Flight crew flew to the airport to get it and bring it back, since time is very important to an organ that's not connected to anything.
The surgery went fine, routine despite being the first in a new facility.
"It's clearly emotional," said Clayson. "Lives are changed. But there is a major tragedy on the other end of someone's joy."
"To think about my life going on on somebody else's tragedy is hard to deal with," Hartwell said. He plans to honor the gift he's received by taking care of it, carefully following his health team's instructions and doing his best to keep himself and his new heart healthy.
He said he'll be in town for a while, getting used to his regimen of medications, including antirejection drugs. After meeting with media Wednesday, he was on his way to have his first heart biopsy a procedure that will be an annual event for at least a while. Friends are beginning to arrive to take turns helping him those first critical days after he leaves the hospital. Soon, he hopes to be back to work in Wyoming.
He's feeling "remarkably well," although he'll probably never forget the shock of his first sneeze, he joked. Sneezing hurts because doctors had to open his chest to transplant the heart.Surgeons at LDS Hospital typically transplanted about 15 hearts a year in the heart transplant program, which is a collaboration between Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah. They expect to do about the same number in the coming year in their new location, Clayson said.