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Heart Failure Leads to Successful Heart Transplant

September 20, 2008

When it comes to local politics, Phillip Duncan knows how to win hearts. The former Belton Chamber and Cass County League of Cities president, Duncan ran his successful Belton, Mo., mayoral campaign in the late 1990s by passing out combs with the slogan, “Combing for votes.” This despite the fact he hadn’t much needed a comb for years.

But last year he needed to win a heart of another kind: his own. The 63-year-old former lineman for Kansas City Power & Light suffered from a bad heart for years. “The doctors told me back in 1994 that my symptoms were a prelude to congestive heart failure and that I should quit working,” Duncan said. He didn’t.

Last year, the stress caught up with him. His heart only worked at 10 percent of its capacity, despite having received maximal medical therapy and a pacemaker/defibrillator.

About the only option left was the one he’d said he would never do because of what it involved. But his first interview with cardiologist Stephanie Lawhorn, M.D., a transplant team member at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, convinced him that his best hope was indeed a new heart.

“Mr. Duncan is an example of why you would undergo a transplant,” said Dr. Lawhorn, one of four transplant cardiologists who cared for Duncan.

“He had a bad heart and was developing worsening heart failure, which would have led to his subsequent death.”

Unbeatable record

Duncan then found himself in the most high-stakes campaign of his life: becoming a transplant candidate. Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute has the only transplant program in the Kansas City area.

New hearts are hard to come by. There remains a national shortage of donors, and every day, people die while waiting for their new chance at life.

Duncan, however, had a huge advantage. Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute has one of the shortest waiting times in the country. In 2006, 100 percent of 30 heart recipients received their transplant within six months; the national average is only 20 percent within six months.

“I was put on the transplant list on June 19th,” said Duncan, who was hospitalized at the time. “On June 23rd, they woke me up and said, ‘We’ve found a heart for you….and it’s a perfect match.’”

One hand, many hearts

As part of Saint Luke’s team approach to transplants, two cardiothoracic surgeons performed Duncan’s surgery. Scott Stuart, M.D. retrieved the heart from the donor. Alexander Pak, M.D., transplanted it into Duncan’s chest.

Timing was critical. An unforgiving four-hour window lay between the heart’s leaving the donor’s body and entering Duncan’s. Otherwise, the new organ may have become irreversibly damaged. Duncan’s new heart was beating on its own in less than three hours. For many donor families, the transplant represents a way to keep their loved ones with them.

“Donor families want to know that their loved one’s heart continues to beat,” said Katherine St. Clair, A.P.R.N., Nurse Manager for cardiac transplant and one of five coordinators who work on the transplant team. Duncan is living proof that it does.

The beat goes on…

Duncan felt the first stirrings of his new heart-healthy life in his arms and hands. As a former lineman, he was accustomed to using his arms to climb utility poles. After the transplant, “my arms just ached,” he said. “Then, I realized what was happening.”

His body was adjusting to once again having a healthy dose of blood and oxygen.

“My friends say I’m a miracle guy,” said Duncan, who now has a heart that works at 60 percent, rather than 10 percent.

“I feel better now than I have for the past six years. I’m getting more active, starting to shoot hoops and playing pool at the coffee club.” (Although he doesn’t drink the coffee.)

“That’s when we know a transplant is successful,” said St. Clair, “when the patient’s quality of life is improved.”

...and on

Duncan’s transplant team will stay with him for the rest of his life. More than a procedure, a transplant is a lifelong commitment for both patients and their doctors.

“These patients become our family,” Dr. Lawhorn said. “It takes a special kind of person to undergo a transplant, and they go through a lot. There needs to be a stable environment for them, both a supportive family and the support of fellow transplant recipients.”

These days, Duncan is waging a new campaign centered around a new issue. He’s once again passing out combs and has given away more than 2,000 so far. This time, they announce he’s “combing for donors,” to help ensure that other transplant candidates get a heart, too.