By Brad Reynolds
We all come into this world with a heart inside us. We don’t always leave with the same one.
The human-to-human heart transplant saw its first success in 1967, and there have been significant scientific advancements since then. Still, it is a risky procedure. It requires a skilled medical team. The patient must have the strength of body and mind to survive. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the donor.
Someone has to have the heart to give.
“Thank God for the donors,” says Roger Senef, a heart transplant survivor from Denton.
In 2011, Roger’s doctors in Great Falls exhausted all resources when a virus attacked the electrical system of his heart. He was flown to Rochester, Minnesota on Mayo One, where it was found that his heart had swelled 17 centimeters across on the lower chambers. It was going to burst. Three days after his arrival at the Mayo Clinic, Roger’s heart was removed. Removed, but not replaced—at least not with a human heart.
“I started out on a Companion Driver,” he explains.
The Companion 2 Driver is an artificial heart that pumps blood with pulses of air. The external portion of the device is docked to either a hospital cart or caddy, allowing mobility.
Roger was without his heart, and yet he was alive and walking around. This in itself seemed like a miracle; however, an artificial heart is not a permanent substitute for an organic one. Renal dysfunction is common among patients implanted with an artificial heart, and in time, Roger’s kidneys began to fail.
“They put me on a new machine called Big Blue,” he says. “They told me I would need a kidney with the heart, and this machine wouldn’t hurt my kidneys in the meantime.”
Apart from Big Blue, Roger had several companions while he awaited a heart transplant. His wife, Patty, and his son, Layton, were by his side. Layton was in grade school. At Christmas, Roger’s nurses decorated his room and bought Layton presents with money from their own pockets.
“That’s the kind of attitude they have. No matter how down you are, they keep you up,” says Roger. “If you lose that, you don’t make it.”
Roger’s medical team informed him that his odds of getting a transplant would increase greatly if he were to transfer to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, which at that time was the number one organ transplant institution in the country.
There, on March 17, 2015, he was given the gift of life. He became the recipient of a new heart and kidney.
“I knew my heart was working when I woke up because I no longer had Big Blue,” he says. “I was alive.”
Roger’s recovery was stunning. Within five days he was in rehab. Within eighteen he was released entirely.
“The first thing I did was make my wife take me to the Home Depot,” he remembers. “It was air conditioned. I enjoy walking around and looking at stuff.”
Roger’s donor is unknown to him. (The families of donors sometimes prefer that the information is kept private; it’s too difficult for them to meet a recipient of their loved one’s organs.) What Roger does know is this: because of that donor, he was home in time for his son’s 15th birthday. He was there when Layton graduated. He’s here today.
Roger has all the information he needs about his donor: they were good-hearted. The proof beats inside his chest.