DAYTON, Ohio — Doctors marvel that Tony Huesman is still among the living. The suburban Washington Township man has defied the odds, living longer with a single transplanted heart than anyone else.
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Huesman, 48, had a heart transplant 28 years ago. He recently went to Ohio State University for some testing.
"The doctors were just amazed that I was still around," said Huesman, who works as marketing director at a sporting-goods store. "I'm living proof a person can go through a life-threatening illness, have the operation and return to a productive life."
Huesman became the longest living person with the same transplanted heart six years ago, upon the second transplant for a Tennessee man who got his first new heart a year before Huesman got his.
Nearly 60,000 U.S. heart transplants have been done since Dr. Norman Shumway's first on Jan. 6, 1968, at Stanford University. More than one of every four patients in 1998-2000 died within five years, although the rate of patients who survive five years or longer has increased in the past 10 years.
After the world's first heart transplant by South African Dr. Christiaan Barnard on Dec. 3, 1967, there were 100 more in 1968. But survival times were so short that the number fell to 18 by 1970.
Some of the pioneering heart specialists abandoned transplants altogether. Stanford, under Shumway, was soon the only U.S. heart transplant center.
"They were very selective," Huesman recalled. "Risky operations weren't going to help."
Huesman's heart, attacked by a pneumonia virus when he was 18, was almost four times its normal size from trying to pump blood with weakened muscles.
"The doctors said the walls were paper-thin," he said.
Huesman was accepted as the third person on the waiting list, which now has nearly 3,000 names. Within a week, two transplants put him on top, and he got his heart in 1978.
Huesman was in intensive care for two months. It was another month before he left the hospital, and seven months before his doctors at Stanford felt safe letting him leave California and return home to Dayton.
The surgery itself hasn't changed radically in the last 28 years. Anti-rejection drugs, which keep a person's immune system from attacking the new heart as if it were a parasite, have improved to where patients routinely leave the hospital a week after surgery.
"They're starting to do active things within a month," Huesman said.
Huesman still takes prednisone, a steroidal drug.
"The philosophy is, whatever I'm on is working, so don't mess with it," he said.
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