Roseville man's new heart is 'second best gift' ever

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2010 - 8:58 PM

Transplant surgery delayed Don and Carolyn Weber's Christmas trip to Disney World, but that's all right, "Grandpa's got a new heart."

Carolyn Weber gave her husband Don a kiss in the ICU at Fairview University Hospital. "I have heart #724," said Weber from his bed.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Don and Carolyn Weber of Roseville had planned to be at Disney World in Florida today with their children and grandchildren.

But a midnight phone call changed everything.

Now Don, a retired St. Paul schoolteacher, is spending Christmas in the hospital recovering from a heart transplant. And his whole family is rejoicing.

Well, the grandkids are just a tad disappointed. As one said: "OK, Grandpa's got a new heart, can we go tomorrow?"

Weber, 68, had been told that it could take a year to get a transplant, and he had only been on the waiting list since October.

"This is the second best gift you could have for Christmas," he said Friday, with his wife and daughters beside him in the intensive care unit at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

The best gift? "Having Jesus born," he said with a smile.

Weber, an active member of Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Paul, taught graphic arts at Harding High School for 36 years, and always thought he was in great health -- until he suffered a heart attack while deer hunting in Canada in 2001. Ever since, he has tried to keep up an active lifestyle -- hunting, fishing, snowmobiling -- but that changed last year when he began to suffer from heart failure.

This fall he was barely able to walk up a flight of stairs. His doctors put him on the transplant list and urged patience.

There's no way to know how long a patient may have to wait for a transplant, said Dr. Marc Pritzker, Weber's cardiologist. "There's a certain amount of lottery in this," he said. "Unfortunately, somebody's life and success depend on somebody else's misfortune. Obviously, those are random events."

While he waited, Weber tried to live as normally as possible. "We asked if it would be OK to go on a family trip, and they said yes," said his daughter, Karin Hagen, who is also a physician. The family settled on a Christmas holiday at Disney World for three generations -- the Webers, their two daughters and sons-in-law, and three young grandchildren. Since Weber couldn't walk, they booked him a motorized scooter.

Their flight was scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday. Everyone was packed and ready to go.

But just after midnight Wednesday, the Webers were awakened by a call from the transplant coordinator. "She said, 'We have a heart here, would you like to accept it?'" recalled Carolyn Weber. "We put on some clothes and probably were there in half an hour."

A few hours later, her husband had a scar down his chest, and, in the words of his surgeon, "a very healthy heart."

At noon, Carolyn went to their weekly transplant support group, which is held at the hospital for patients and families, and shared the emotional news. "I said, 'He just received a heart this morning. He's out of surgery. It's a Christmas miracle.' And then everybody clapped."

On Friday, Weber was half sitting up in a hospital bed as his transplant surgeon, Dr. Kenneth Liao, stopped by to ask how he was doing. "I guess I'm doing pretty well," Weber replied. "Everybody says I am."

Liao agreed. "Super well," he said.

Pritzker, his cardiologist, said Weber would probably go home in about a week, and then settle into months of rehabilitation.

Weber says he's still stunned by the events of the last few days. He learned that he is "heart number 724" in the university's transplant history, and plans to embroider that number on his baseball cap. The donor, by tradition, is anonymous.

"It's sad to see somebody have to die in order for you to get a heart," Weber said. "But you sure are thankful. Where would I be without this transplant?"

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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