Heart transplant patients celebrate life

Updated: 2007-02-14 10:21

HOUSTON - Eddie Knipp's two heart transplants have given him the wisdom to savor the small wonders of life and the strength to endure one of its largest losses - the death of a child. On Tuesday, Knipp and nine other heart transplant recipients celebrated more than 20 years of survival after surgery at the place that made it possible: the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital.

"It has given me a new perspective on life, a new dimension," said Knipp, 61, an El Paso resident who had transplants in 1987 and 1999.

In 1995, Knipp's 17-year-old son was killed in a car accident. His organs were donated and went to at least 70 other people, Knipp said. Despite the tragedy, Knipp says he is grateful for his second - and third - chance at life.

"Every day I wake up and I thank God for every breath I take," Knipp said. "It's the little things in life that we really take for granted that I now realize are so wonderful, so big."

Besides celebrating the longevity of some of its patients, the renowned cardiac center marked the 25th anniversary of a program dedicated to repairing failing hearts.

The first successful heart transplant in the United States was performed at the hospital in 1968 by founder Dr. Denton Cooley, who is now surgeon-in-chief. Since then, more than 1,000 transplants have been performed there, according to hospital officials.

By the end of the year, the Texas Heart Institute could have 23 patients who have reached the 20-year survival milestone. The average heart transplant patient survives eight to 10 years. According to the American Heart Association, the five-year survival rate is 71 percent for men and 67 percent for women.

The risks were even greater when the field of transplant surgery was still evolving two decades ago.

"The real brave ones were the patients," said Dr. Branislav Radovancevic, director of the Center of Cardiac Support and associate director of Cardiovascular Surgery and Transplant Research.

Charles Washington of Oak Ridge, Tenn., was one of those patients.

In 1982, he suffered a massive heart attack, leaving his heart functioning at less than 30 percent of capacity.

"I was literally gasping for air," Washington said. After seven bypasses, Washington's health continued to deteriorate and his prognosis was bleak. Then, on March 27, 1983, Washington received a new heart, and a new appreciation for life.

Now 70, the longest-surviving Texas Heart Institute transplant recipient at nearly 24 years had the chance to watch his children and grandchildren become adults.

"It makes you really enjoy all of life, not just a special occasion," said Washington, who is four years shy of the longest-surviving heart transplant recipient in the U.S., according to the United Network for Organ Sharing in Richmond, Va.

Shortly after the surgery, Washington was attending the annual Oak Ridge dogwood blossom celebration and was taken aback by the sight of the trees in full bloom.

"I looked up, grabbed a leaf and tears came to my eye," Washington said. "I thought about the beauty and tragedy of nature. It reminded me that there was tragedy about the beauty of life. The trees blooms, they die, they come back the next year in full bloom."

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