Keller family meets transplant recipients at Fort Worth hospital

04/01/2014 7:26 PM

04/02/2014 12:19 AM

A hand, a heart and two lungs came together Tuesday to urge people to register for organ donation.

The hand, now part of Ronnie Thurman, pulled a lanyard that lifted a Donate Life flag in the Swati Gandhi Memorial Prayer Garden across South Main Street from John Peter Smith Hospital.

“I don’t know that I’m necessarily deserving, but I’m very thankful,” Thurman said of the right hand he received from Ian Heidemann, a young Keller man who died from a head injury in February 2012.

Ian’s parents, Rob and Janis Heidemann, and his brother, Bob, stood next to Thurman as the flag ascended. Nearby were Ian’s heart, beating inside Reggie King, and his lungs, breathing for Paul Boudwin. The Heidemanns said they didn’t know until after Ian’s death that he had become a registered organ donor a year before the accident.

Boudwin is grateful for the young man’s thoughtfulness.

“Had it not been for Ian, his family and his unbelievable gift, I would have passed on two years ago,” Boudwin said. “It came just shy of four to six weeks of when I would have passed away.”

Heart disease threatened King’s life, and for two years it kept him from doing anything with his wife, Cathy, and their three kids.

“I’m just back to being Reggie,” King said. “For a while, I was just surviving.”

Five others benefited from organs donated by Ian Heidemann after his body was brought to JPS. The fact that he had registered as a donor took a great weight off his family, Rob Heidemann said.

“He was on life support for five days,” Rob Heidemann said. “But we knew after only a couple of days that he wouldn’t get better. For us, it put us at peace that he’d already made that decision. Out biggest wish was that his heart go to someone, because that’s who he was.”

Unlike King and Boudwin, Thurman’s life wasn’t saved by Ian Heidemann’s gift. But his lifestyle was. When the lifelong farmer lost his hand in 2003 in the auger of a combine, it profoundly affected his ability to work on the 1,500-acre farm in Indiana that he runs with his brother.

“I got up and worked, put out a crop every year,” Thurman said. “I never was on disability.”

But without it, everything was a struggle. Also, he wanted to hold his wife’s hand again and scratch her back. Thurman had to weigh the benefits against disadvantages that the transplant would introduce.

Hand and arm transplants have been possible for about 15 years, but only a little more than 20 have been performed in the United States, Dr. Tae Chong said. Though he didn’t perform Thurman’s 16-hour surgery, Chong was on a panel at JPS before Tuesday’s flag ceremony to increase awareness of the procedure.

He has started a transplant program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and hopes to find suitable candidates.

“It requires that the people who have been amputated have to be on chronic immunosuppressives their whole lives,” Chong said. “It changes the risks for other conditions like high blood pressure. You go from being someone who never took medications to someone who has to take them the rest of your life at significant cost.”

The program gets money from the university to pay costs surrounding the surgery, Chong said. But the patient must have insurance that will pay for the lifelong medication.

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