Heart Transplants Save Lives, Even Famous Ones

More than 1,000 people have received heart transplants already this year -- and one of the most recent patients is former U.S. representative Charlie Wilson. Wilson was discharged today from the Methodist Hospital about ten days after receiving his new heart. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson has more.

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Congressman Charlie Wilson served in the Texas 2nd District from 1973 to 1997. He's the subject of a best-selling book and of an upcoming movie starring Tom Hanks. But even more significant to him is the battle he's been fighting with heart disease. In 1985, he was diagnosed with heart failure. About 40 days ago his condition became so severe he was placed on the organ transplant list. Wilson describes what it was like waiting for a transplant.

"I guess everybody's different, but I really - although I had come to terms with it and I had made my decision and my wife and I were comfortable with the decision - I still didn't want that phone to ring. I was still scared. Really scared, I mean really scared. And I've been plenty scared lots of times."

Wilson, who is 74, says despite his fear he still jumped at the opportunity when Dr. Guillermo Torre called and told him they had an organ donor. Dr. Torre is the medical director of the heart transplant program at Methodist.

"We talked about it frankly and I told him that if we didn't do a transplant then the probabilities of survival the next few years was really not likely." [Wilson] "That was the most startling conversation I've ever had." [Torre] "And frankly I'm not sure that you were very happy with me." [Wilson] "I wasn't. I was neither happy nor convinced." [Torre] "It is a scary process when you face a patient and you tell them that they need transplantation."

Right now 2,622 people are waiting for heart transplants in the U.S. An estimated 15 percent of them will die before they receive a new heart. Nearly 100,000 people are on the overall organ donation list. Janice Whaley is with the LifeGift Organ Donation Center. She says this particular process was initiated by a sister agency in another state.

"The donor was an adult male in the Midwest area of the United States, whose next of kin consented to the heart and many other organs for transplantation. We are fortunate that the next of kin said yes in this case. We encourage individuals to take the burden off their families by registering to become an organ and tissue donor. And you can do so in the state of Texas by going to DonateLifeTexas.org."

And Wilson says his new experience as a donor recipient has turned him into a public advocate for organ donation. Wilson will spend the next 2-3 months recuperating in the Houston area before returning to his home in Lufkin. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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