Heart transplant transforms lifeMitchell man’s health journey culminates in August surgery.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
Morris Beck recalls the first words he spoke to his wife Ardis in the recovery room after receiving his new heart in an Aug. 2 transplant operation.
“I told her, ‘I love you,’ and then, ‘I can hear my heart beat.’ ”
The latter comment wasn’t romantic declaration on Morris’ part, but a simple statement of fact. He hadn’t had a detectible heartbeat for the past 18 months.
Morris, 57, a corrections officer at the Davison County Jail, had spent those months wearing a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD), an assistive pumping system that boosted the output of a heart damaged by a 1997 heart attack. The revolutionary device took over for Morris’ heart, but it reduced his heartbeat to a quiet mechanical whirr.
His original heart was nearly a goner.
“The 1997 heart attack was massive and his heart never recovered,” said Ardis Beck, “and over the years his heart just wore out.”
He was airlifted to Sioux Falls three times and Ardis had to give him CPR once when he fell out of bed. She described the ordeal as “emotional turmoil.”
Through it all, Ardis kept busy caring for her husband and working as a special education teacher at L.B. Williams Elementary School, where she earned the Mitchell School District’s 2012 Teacher of the Year honor.
She joked that had she known the “in sickness and in health” part of their wedding vows would be so severely tested, she might never have signed on.
After the string of close calls, the couple’s decision to implant the LVAD on Feb. 3, 2011, was an easy one, she said.
Before the implantation of the LVAD system and an automatic defibrillator, Ardis said her husband’s heart was pumping at a paltry 16 percent efficiency. A 450-foot walk to the mailbox was impossibly exhausting. After the implant, the daily chore was a piece of cake.
The LVAD, which was featured in an earlier Daily Republic story, dramatically changed Morris’ life. “I felt like I was 95 before the operation and I felt like I was 25 afterward,” he said.
The device was implanted at a Minneapolis hospital. As miraculous as it was, it had its drawbacks.
The site where the pump’s tubes entered Morris’ chest had to be meticulously cleaned on a regular basis, and the batteries that powered the unit had to be regularly charged and changed. Getting ready for a shower was a tedious 20-minute procedure.
Then there was the lurking worry that the device might fail or that, in some freak accident or fracas, the life-saving tubes might be pulled from his chest at the jail, or that the tubes might accidentally be snagged at home with similarly disastrous results.
Morris said receiving his transplanted heart changed all that.
“The most amazing thing is just being able to take a five-minute shower without all those tubes and other equipment. It’s great,” he said.
The LVAD gave Morris a second lease on life, but it also gave him an opportunity to get on a heart transplant list.
Potential heart transplant recipients are categorized as 1A, which means they are critically ill and in need of life support, or 1B, which means a patient’s health can be maintained with medications. Patients classified as 1A are the highest priority for a transplant.
After extensive testing, doctors at the University of Minnesota felt Morris would qualify for 1A if he didn’t have the LVAD and, starting in June, they placed him on the 1A list for 30 days for a matching heart.
That status placed him at the top of the recipient list, and the LVAD provided relatively good health while the Becks waited for the right heart.
“It was a roller coaster,” Ardis said. “You just wait; you don’t know.”
The 30 days came and went without a donor heart. Disappointed, the Becks accepted their doctor’s decision and resigned themselves to being dropped back to 1B status.
A 10:45 p.m. phone call on Aug. 1 changed everything.
“I’ve got a match for you,” said Dr. Peter Eckman, calling from Minneapolis. It was a heart from a young person in his early 20s.
In less than an hour, the Becks, who live just minutes from Mitchell Municipal Airport, were waiting for the air ambulance to land.
“I was a total wreck and hyperventilating,” Ardis said, “but I knew that once they got Morris on the plane, they would take care of him.”
Morris, in contrast, recalled being perfectly calm.
“Once we made the decision to take the donor heart I knew everything would be OK,” he said.
“I had been waiting for this for 14 years. The nurses on the air ambulance asked me if I needed a sedative. I told them I don’t, but she might,” he said, pointing to Ardis.
In a blur of activity that filled the next two days, Morris’s LVAD was removed and he received his new heart.
He returns to the University of Minnesota’s Fairview Hospital, in Minneapolis, periodically for biopsies that are used to fine-tune the anti-rejection medications he must take for the rest of his life.
The meds dampen Morris’ immune response. That means he can be more susceptible to colds and other common illnesses.
“It takes me two to three times longer to fight things off,” he said. “I avoid crowds and little kids, I always carry a face mask, and I use lots of hand sanitizer.”
As transplant recipient No. 765, Morris was given a heart badge with his name and a red heartshaped pillow signed by all the members of the hospital’s transplant team. The surgical staff used a Magic Marker on the pillow to help explain the procedures they used to accomplish the transplant.
What does it feel like to have someone else’s heart?
“You don’t think of it too much,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, but you think of it as your own heart.”
Morris says he feels good — like he’s fallen into the fountain of youth.
The Becks will have the opportunity in about six months to contact the donor family and express their gratitude. The family is not required to respond.
The Becks know they’ve been blessed.
“Our heroes are members of the donating family,” Ardis said. “They need time to grieve and we’ve needed time to understand we’re entering a new chapter of life.”
She looks about their modest home at the painting and other projects that were put on hold for years. Things that weren’t so before now seem possible. Maybe even a new house.
“We used to think day-to-day,” Ardis said, “and now we’re starting to think in years.
“Now we see a future together.”