Local waiting on heart transplant

Jim Whary is on a list and awaiting a heart transplant from Tucson, Ariz. At left is his wife Cindy Whary.(Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

In a state park office on a long stretch of road between Clovis and Portales, Jim Whary spends his day in limbo, like he has everyday for the past few months.

Currently undergoing evaluation to be placed on a heart transplant list, Whary, 50, has been diagnosed with a slew of heart conditions.

He had a heart attack at Lake Sumner in 2003 as he and his children were concluding a day-long fishing trip. Following the attack, months of doctor appointments, tests and procedures turned into years.

In the end, Whary was told there was only one option left — a heart transplant.

Having lost three immediate family members to heart-related deaths, Whary had always known the potential existed for trouble.

Yet, even after his heart attack, Whary found himself in a state of denial.

“I kept thinking they were overreacting, that it wasn’t that bad,” he said. “In all honesty, I know there’s something wrong with me. I can feel it constantly. But in my eyes, I’m not bedridden. I can still do things. I have a good appetite and so-forth, so how can I be as sick as they’re telling me? There’s just no way.”

Whary has begun the process to accepting the gravity of his situation.

“You can’t beat heredity,” he said. “There’s no way around that. If it wasn’t for the support system at home, I don’t know if I could make it through this.”

Just before Christmas, Whary and his wife traveled to the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson, the center dictated by their health insurance, to begin the screening process for the heart transplant list. After four trips and days of grueling tests that included everything from financial soundness and psychological well-being to the more-expected physical tests and lab work, he is just steps away from being placed on the transplant list.

Nancy Harrington, cardiothoracic transplant coordinator at University of Arizona Medical Center, is relatively certain Whary will be placed on the list once final evaluations have been done.

“His heart is very sick,” she said.

There are 27 people on the list for heart transplants at the medical center, Harrington said. However, it is really nothing more than a guide, she said, as the list changes every day.

“It is a very, very fluid list, there’s nothing hard and fast about it,” she said, explaining priority is determined by multiple factors. As the status of the candidates changes, so does the list with those in the most dire situations rising to the top.

Blood type and body size are important factors in pairing a heart with a recipient.

According to Harrington, a large person, for instance, must have a heart that can support their size.

Availability of organs is a difficulty. A heart has to be harvested from a living donor. The implication is the donor would be brain dead, on life support or in an accident, providing an opportunity for the transplant process to occur.

From the time the heart is harvested, the donor team has a four-hour window to conduct the transplant. During that time, the candidate must travel to the medical center and be prepped. Harrington said the recipient needs to arrive no later than two hours after the heart has been harvested.

That is just the beginning, Harrington explained. Depletion of the immunity system is an inherent problem, making the recipient susceptible to illness and infection. Rejection will be a lifelong concern, requiring permanent medication and frequent evaluations, she said.

A successful transplant ideally means an improvement in quality of life, Harrington said.

Allen Bryant, a retired Clovis insurance agent, knows what Whary is going through. On May 15, 1990, after months of waiting, Bryant received a new heart. It was a perfect match.

Just before Christmas, a mutual friend told Bryant about Whary’s plight. Wanting to offer support, Bryant called him.

“I told him if I had it to do over again, I would. There really wasn’t (a down side) in my particular case. It was successful and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.”

Bryant said he has met many success stories such as himself over the years.

“I’ve been happy and content,” Bryant said. “The heart transplant is and was quite successful for me and a lot of other people.

“The heart’s never skipped a beat, never given me a minute’s trouble,” he said, further explaining that technology has brought about many life-saving measures to help candidates through the waiting period.

Current data supports Bryant’s confidence.

A 2004 survey showed only 8.4 percent of people on transplant lists died while waiting for a heart.

While the numbers are in Whary’s favor, they offer little comfort to he and his family as they live day-to-day in a world of emotional peaks and valleys.

All the normal issues — the mortgage, household expenses, senior portraits, college plans, retirement — are now compounded by the uncertainty of the future.

“In the back of your mind it’s, ‘Are we going to get up to the top (of the list) in time,’” said Cindy, Whary’s wife of 19 years. “I don’t have any control, none at all — it’s just the unknown. We have no control over anything.

“There are some places you don’t let your mind go — we are riding on faith that somehow or another everything is going to fall into place.”