Priest reflects on surviving 25 years after a heart transplant

Will reach milestone of 25 ‘God-given  extra years’ March 2

By Father Loras Otting

The ringing of the telephone jangled me awake. I glanced at the alarm clock beside the bed, and it showed 2:28 a.m. Somehow, I knew that this was the call I had been waiting to receive for over six months. A voice said: “Father, this is the University of Iowa Hospital. We have a potential heart for you. How soon can you be here?” I made a mistake and said that I could make it in one hour and a half … I should have said two hours.

Immediately, I got dressed as fast as I could and then called my brother Bob in Cascade. By good luck, he had recently retired.

In the middle of the night on a March 2, the weather could have been a deluge of snow, freezing rain  or thick fog. Fortunately, it was a perfectly clear night, and I drove 80 miles an hour to Cascade. Bob was waiting when I pulled up. His wife, Jean,  peeked out from behind the drapes while I switched to the passenger side. Bob got in, and off we went to Iowa City.

Somehow, I felt no fear or anxiety of what lay ahead. I recall feeling cold as my body was chilled down for the hours-long surgery.

When I awoke, an air tube down my throat prevented me from speaking. My motions for something to write on produced a pen and paper. “Did they do it?” I wrote. Bob smiled and answered in the affirmative. Doctors had informed me that, for many reasons, such a serious operation might not be successful.

Miraculously, I felt no pain, in spite of the fact that my chest had been sawed open and rib cage spread apart. The air tube was a big annoyance and a great relief when it was removed.

After a few days, I was moved from the ICU to the regular part of the hospital. I remained there for a couple of weeks under observation and later was allowed to live at my cousins’s home in Iowa City. My sister Rose Mary stayed with me over the next four weeks and drove me to the hospital for a check-up three times a week. Eventually, as I was doing well, I could return to the Villa Raphael in Dubuque.

The ensuing years turned out to be an experience of hell on earth. It had been related to me that, as a side effect of the powerful anti-rejection drugs, I might experience the serious illness of diabetes or an onslaught of acne, severe headaches or excessive hair growth. The problem that I had to deal with was having excruciating headaches. For a number of years, the headaches were so painful that many times I had to resort to vomiting and a trip to the ER at Mercy Hospital. Morphine or other powerful drugs gave me temporary relief.

Nevertheless, during this painful ­period, I never regretted receiving the new heart. As time went on, unexpectedly, the ­severe headaches began to subside and then cease altogether.

In 1994, I was the 89th receiver of a heart transplant at the University of Iowa Hospital. By this time, the number has greatly increased and continues to grow. During an orientation session with family members, a chart indicated that a heart recipient could expect five to seven years more of life. I am truly glad I accepted the opportunity because on March 2, 2019, I will have achieved 25 God-given extra years.