Most heart transplant patients don't live more than 20 years. He just passed 30.
Without the death of a Wisconsin boy, Hank Mihelcic might not be alive today.
The 85-year-old Belleville resident received the boy's heart during a transplant surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis on May 13, 1986.
Now 30 years later, Hank wishes he knew more about the boy and his family.
"At that time, they would not tell the recipients anything about the donor. They do now. They didn't then. It was a big secret," Hank said. "All I know is it was from a 16-year-old male from Milwaukee, Wisconsin."
Living so long after a heart transplant is rare. Dr. Gregory Ewald, a cardiologist and medical director of the heart-transplant program at Barnes, said only 25 to 30 percent of heart-transplant patients live more than 20 years.
"It's not necessarily always a heart transplant issue that limits their survival," Ewald said. "A lot of patients end up developing medical problems that become life threatening or take their life that probably would have happened anyway."
Barnes-Jewish Hospital has done about 800 adult heart transplants since the fall of 1985.
Hank's was the 29th.
The first heart transplant ever performed was done in 1967 by Christiaan Barnard in South Africa.
Heart attack strikes
April 18, 1986, was supposed to be a special day — Hank's and his wife Darlene's 26th wedding anniversary.
They went out for a prime rib dinner at a Belleville restaurant to celebrate. Darlene couldn't finish all of hers so Hank ate the rest. "I was pretty well overloaded," he said.
The couple went home, and Hank, who was 54 at the time, took their dog for a walk. During the walk, he noticed something was wrong, that he may be having a heart attack. "I made it back home somehow," he said.
He collapsed inside, and Darlene called 911. It didn't look good, and neither Hank nor Darlene knew if he was going to survive. He believes 40 years of smoking had caught up with him and caused the attack.
Hank, an Air Force veteran, initially went to Scott Air Force Base Medical Center before being transferred to Barnes-Jewish. "They kept reviving me with the shock treatment — like three or four times," he said. "When it was all done, half my heart muscle was dead."
That's when doctors decided the only way to save him was with a heart transplant. "I figured I was a cooked goose," Hank said.
I never thought that we would face anything like that. Hank was very, very lucky, because he was critical. He didn't have much time left. He had very little functioning heart muscle left.
Darlene Mihelcic, wife of 30-year heart transplant survivor
Hank waited four days for a new heart after being placed on the waiting list. Doctors kept his weakened heart going with a pacemaker; first a temporary one and then a permanent one.
"The very morning they were placing a pacemaker in my shoulder the heart arrived. It came from Milwaukee," he said.
Darlene was scared. "I never thought that we would face anything like that," she said. "Hank was very, very lucky, because he was critical. He didn't have much time left. He had very little functioning heart muscle left."
On May 13, 1986, Hank had a successful heart transplant and went home nine days later.
30 years later
Hank and Darlene have been married for 56 years. They are busy for two retirees. Hank spends his days surfing the Internet, walking and doing yard work.
He admits the yard work is getting harder. "Things are slowing down, but we still do all of our own stuff," Hank said.
He doesn't smoke anymore. In fact he quit the day of his heart attack. "I never smoked again,'' he said.
Hank takes pride in his military service and proudly shows off photos from his 25 years in the Air Force. One photo shows Hank with a flight crew in front of a B-52G Bomber. He was a navigator while serving as a second lieutenant.
He's also fond of his time as a coal miner, railroad telegrapher, insurance salesman and real estate agent.
Their home in a quaint neighborhood near Douglas School in Belleville is filled with photos of loved ones including their three sons, five grandchildren and one great grandchild.
I have kept up the regimen of medication faithfully to the best of my ability. I only missed a few times. ... That's probably the main reason I'm still alive.
Hank Mihelcic, Belleville resident who had a heart transplant
Hank takes a handful of pills in the morning and evening, including immunosuppressant medication to help prevent his body from rejecting his donor heart.
"I have kept up the regimen of medication faithfully to the best of my ability," he said. "I only missed a few times. ... That's probably the main reason I'm still alive."
Hank said Darlene — "the world's greatest nurse" — keeps him on track and takes good care of him. She's a retired registered nurse who worked at Memorial Hospital in Belleville. "I'm not afraid to use supplements either," Hank said.
Darlene, who is 85, had high praise for her husband. "This is an amazing man," she said.
"Oh listen to that," Hank chimed in.
"As a nurse I'm saying that, not as your wife," Darlene said. "He has had no rejection; he has had no problems."
Hank's strong genes also have helped, she said.
Hank visits the heart transplant team at Barnes once a year for a check-up.
Hank and his heart transplant nurse coordinator Cindy Pasque look forward to seeing each other on those visits. Pasque has worked with Hank the last 29 years.
"We've become pretty good friends," Hank said. "Whenever I need anything I send her an e-mail or a phone call. We get along just fine."
Pasque said heart transplant team members are available to patients and try to answer their questions or concerns.
"We know them quite well. We follow them for life," Pasque said. "You get to see these patients over their course of their life. You get to help them and be a part of their family as well."
She says Hank and his family have had a lot to do with his successful recovery over the years.
"His great attitude has gotten him through the issues along with his supportive family," Pasque said. "People like him are what makes our job so worthwhile. Hank has done really well. 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."