Defying The Odds, Heart Transplant Patient Living Life

Judy Kramer
County Reporter
Jerry Houchens, 79, of Warsaw, had a heart transplant at University of Columbia Hospital 29 years ago after having 10 to 12 heart attacks. Ten days after the transplant, he went home to mow the yard and tend to his horses. He was doing so well that he came off disability, and returned to his career as a truck driver, only retiring when he was 75 years old.
“Having a new heart was (and is) unbelievable,” said Houchens. “The heart transplant team did a great job, and my new heart was a good fit. I feel and act as young as my new heart, and have been able to do many things over the past 29 years that would never have happened without the transplant. One of those things was driving 100,000 miles a year as a truck driver.”
Houchens said that he was on the transplant waiting list for four months, and then one night his doctor told him to come in right away for the transplant. The donor was a young, male, college student who had just died in a car accident near the Arkansas border.
“As the team at the University of Columbia Hospital was detaching my old heart, it was visually coordinating the procedure with another team of doctors who were detaching the new heart from the young donor,” said Houchens. “When a cut was made on my old heart, a compatible cut was made on the donated heart to ensure that it would fit in all the major heart vessels during the transplant. The new heart was the appropriate size. If it had been smaller, there would have been some gaps that would fill with water and cause health problems later.”
Houchens said that the heart transplant people are very good at what they do, but it is up to the patient to write a letter (anonymously) to the family of the donor to express condolences and say how grateful he/she is for the life-giving organ. He wrote the letter which was sent to the family through a separate entity, but did not hear back.
After Houchens’ hospitalization, he returned to his doctor every month, and a total of nine months, for checkups. He said that for the first three months he was given steroids to make him feel good so he would become active and keep the new heart healthy. He has been on a lot of “pills” since the transplant such as Vitamin D, blood thinners and an immune suppression that prevents rejection of the new organ. He said that since his immune system is weakened, he has to be careful about contracting diseases from which he might not recover. He is also not able to be an organ donor.  He said that no transplant patients can do that.
“It is funny,” said Houchens. “I was an avid deer hunter before the transplant. But, ever since I have had no desire to hunt and I seem more in touch with my emotions. The young man who donated my new heart was supposed to be a “gentle man” and I am acting in the same way!”
He said that he is also acting younger than his 79 years, and just bought a new motorcycle, that he is practicing to drive. He said that his balance on the bike is different than years ago when he had another motorcycle. 
“My heart is younger than I am,” said Houchens. “I am acting the age of my heart.”
The first heart transplant was performed by Dr. Christiaan Barnard at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, on December 3, 1967. On December 6, 1967, the first pediatric heart transplant was performed in New York. Dr. Barnard performed a second transplant on January 2, 1968, and on January 6, 1968, in an operating room as Stanford Hospital, in the U.S., Dr. Norman Shumway, transplanted a heart. 
https:/ reported that 3,552 heart transplants took place in the U.S. in 2019. The top number of transplants that year were 23,401 for kidneys.