Skip Boldt knew finding a donor heart matching his tissue type was a long shot -- one in 30,000.
"Without the sacrifice of someone else, I wouldn't have this opportunity," Skip said. "It's not a walk in the park. I don't take anything for granted."
But, it just so happened that when a suitable donor was found, Skip was already admitted to the University of California San Diego's medical center to monitor a change in medication.
The odds of that coincidence are like winning the lottery -- one in millions.
"Skip was going to start the new medicine at 9 p.m.," said his wife Julie. "At 8:15 p.m., we got a call from the transplant coordinator. They had a heart."
According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, 7,150 people donated organs last year. Meanwhile 89,122 patients wait for some type of donation; more than 3,000 of those need a new heart.
"Patients are matched to organs based on a number of factors including blood and tissue typing, medical urgency, time on the waiting list, and geographical location," the Health Resources and Services Administration (HSRA) reported.
"The only thing we know (about the donor) is he was a male in his 40s," Julie said. "It was a sudden death."
Skip's life as a transplant candidate started in November 2004 when the United Network for Organ Sharing notified him that he'd been placed on the waiting list.
At the time, Skip was second in line in this region to receive a heart transplant. Several months later, in February, he moved to the front of the line when a donor heart was found for the other patient.
Skip packed his bags and immediately moved to Southern California. As a requirement of the operation, he had to live within a two-hour drive of the University of California San Diego's transplant center.
After an eight-month wait and a five-hour surgery, the plumber from Payson had a new, healthy heart pumping blood through his body.
"It's only been two weeks," said Skip. "My chest hurts. It's hard to know how I feel."
According to the American Heart Association, heart transplant surgery is physically and emotionally traumatic.
Months of psychological and physical evaluations prepared Skip for the preoperative stress he would face when the transplant team started prepping him for surgery.
"I was on an even keel," said Skip. "I was trying to stay focused. As the time went by, I'm thinking, ‘maybe it's not a good heart.' They say you can be turned away for anything."
Julie said Skip was put under around 4 a.m., July 21.
Shortly thereafter, Skip's chest bone was sawed apart and retracted, revealing his diseased heart. As the operation progressed, tubes were sutured onto the heart's main vessels, leading into to the bypass machine, which circulated Skip's blood in the absence of his heart.
Doctors placed the donor heart in Skip's chest cavity and reattached the vessels. Usually the heart starts beating on its own, but sometimes it's shocked with a defibrillator to regulate its rhythm. To close Skip's chest plate, surgeons wove several feet of wire between his ribs.
"Everything went fine," Julie said. "But Skip's heart was so tough and so hard, Dr. Jolene Kriett had a hard time taking it out."
Doctors diagnosed Skip in 2000 with a congenital heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or HCM. The thickened walls of his enlarged heart obstructed blood flow, leaving him constantly fatigued, and vulnerable to cardiac arrest.
Skip's heart disease was compounded by disorganized impulses, or fibrillations, of the heart's four chambers.
Doctors tried to control Skip's erratic heart with medication and an internal pacemaker/defibrillator to no avail. Without the transplant, Skip would have died.
Julie said Skip's recovery has been remarkable. His goal is to live an honorable life, paying tribute to the man and the family who gave him his new heart.
"He's doing awesome," Julie said. "He wants to make the donor family proud of him. He's starting to feel normal again and getting his personality back."
A week after the surgery, Skip moved out of intensive care and into a private hospital room. He walked up a flight of stairs and lost the gray pallor caused by his heart disease.
"The doctor told me the color came back to my face," he said.
Skip's postoperative recovery will take months, possibly years. Initially, he's staying near the hospital where he'll learn to act as his own physician.
He takes his vital signs four times a day, and ingests up to 20 different types of medication, costing more than $6,000 a month.
The anti-rejection medication, which he'll take for rest of his life, leaves him vulnerable to other diseases including cancer.
"My immune system is always going to be down," said Skip. "I'm a really touchy-feely person, but now I have to make sure others aren't sick. I have to carry around sanitized wipes and wipe everything down before I touch it."
Skip looks forward to a homecoming later this year, and he knows as time passes, the mortal burden of his fortune will darken his elation.
"It's a tremendous thing to deal with," Skip said. "Everyone is really excited for me, but there's another tragic side to this. There was a guy in his forties who died quickly, but tragically...it's bittersweet."
Well-wishers can contact the Boldt Family at:
The Bannister Family House, 200 W. Arbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92103-8961 or the Boldt's Payson home, 1911 Fairway Lane, Payson, AZ 85541.
An account has been established at SafeQ Credit Union called the Boldt Family Fund-raiser.