Two years ago, an Iowa man whom Guinness World Records had named the longest-surviving heart transplant patient died 34 years after receiving his new heart.
Records like this cause friends of Richard Gullickson, of rural Center, to believe he might be one of the longest-surviving heart transplant patients alive today.
Gullickson, who turned 83 this month, received his life-saving surgery 29 years ago at the University of Minnesota’s Health Transplant Care facility — the same provider that cared for the Guinness record holder.
“Up to today, still no complications. Never had no rejections, nothing,” said Gullickson, who receives a health checkup every six months at Bismarck’s Sanford Health. “I was just down this last May and went to test all day, and all the numbers were right. So I’ve been truly blessed with the way it’s turned out.”
Heart transplant patients who receive new organs before the age of 55 and get them at hospitals that perform at least nine heart transplants annually are “significantly more likely” to survive at least 10 years after their surgeries, according to a 2012 John Hopkins University study.
Gullickson received his heart transplant at age 53. The retired farmer kept in touch with two other patients, from Chicago and Rapid City, who had their surgeries the same time he did. They lived until about 10 years after their operations.
“They made their 10 years and that was it,” he said.
Gullickson began experiencing difficulties breathing five years before his surgery. His skin was pale and he was fatigued.
“I had no ambition, couldn’t do much anymore,” he said. “Recliner to the bathroom, back to the recliner. I wouldn’t have lasted much longer, actually.”
Up until 1990, he regularly visited Medcenter One Health Systems, the former site of Sanford Health. He learned he had congenital heart disease — a rare abnormality in the heart that develops before birth.
“I was doctoring and then I got to a point where (the doctor) said, well, you need a transplant,” Gullickson said.
At the time, the closest hospital performing heart transplants was at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He moved to an apartment in the Twin Cities with his family for the operation. He couldn’t drive and had to go to the clinic every day for three months.
“It was a lot harder on my wife than it was for me by far. She had to do all the running and find a place to live, and she was working,” Gullickson said. “My mother came and stayed and a couple friends came and stayed with me and so forth.”
At the University of Minnesota, Gullickson was treated by Sara Shumway, the daughter of heart transplant pioneer Norman Shumway, who was the first doctor to perform an adult human-to-human heart transplant. The heart Gullickson received belonged to a “young lad” who died in a car accident, he said.
Doctors began to notice the results of his surgery were unusual after the eight-hour operation.
“I could jump over the moon,” Gullickson said. “My dentist always gets a kick out of that because the next morning I was sitting on the edge of my bed brushing my teeth eight hours later.”
Rehabilitation was a “piece of cake,” Gullickson said. When doctors asked him to climb three stairs, he could climb a whole story. After climbing stairs backwards, Gullickson gained the nickname, “The Miracle on Sixth Floor.” About a dozen interns and doctors training at the university medical school would examine him every day.
“There was a line of young doctors so my therapist, she had enough of that,” Gullickson said. “So when they’d come, she’d say, ‘He’s got to go to therapy today.’”
“They couldn’t believe it,” he said.
After a few months, doctors decided he didn’t need to undergo rehabilitation. He returned to Center on Thanksgiving Day.
Today, Gullickson lives on his farm with his son and daughter — a place he’s lived his whole life except for when he served in the Army and was posted in West Germany from 1956-58.
He feels he is in good health, but the medication he takes to prevent heart rejection can be a nuisance, he said. The pills often cause his joints to become stiff and prompt the development of corns, a type of callus made of dead skin — which a doctor in Bismarck freezes off.
“I’m fortunate I’ve got family around me so they help me when I need help,” he said.
Gullickson often plays cards with his friends at the senior citizen center, the Golden Age Club.
One of his friends, Sherry Cotton, said she researched other living heart transplant patients.
She hasn’t found one who has lived with a donated heart as long as Gullickson.
“There was that lady who had two transplants. And he’s only had the one, and then there’s the other who’s had it for 34 years but he is now passed, two of them are now passed. That was the longest,” Cotton said.
Gullickson isn’t sure if he is “the oldest guy on the block,” he said. But one thing is certain: He plans to continue playing cards in the morning at the senior center and enjoy its food. And in the summer, he plans to continue bringing his tractor to shows with his son, Clark.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said.