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Man may be longest living heart transplant patient

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Two years ago, an Iowa man whom Guinness World Records had named the longest-surviving heart transplant patient died 34 years after receiving his new heart.

Records like this cause friends of Richard Gullickson, of rural Center, to believe he might be one of the longest-surviving heart transplant patients alive today, reported the Bismarck Tribune.

Gullickson, who turned 83 this month, received his life-saving surgery 29 years ago at the University of Minnesota’s Health Transplant Care facility — the same provider that cared for the Guinness record holder.

“Up to today, still no complications. Never had no rejections, nothing,” said Gullickson, who receives a health checkup every six months at Bismarck’s Sanford Health. “I was just down this last May and went to test all day, and all the numbers were right. So I’ve been truly blessed with the way itís turned out.”

Heart transplant patients who receive new organs before the age of 55 and get them at hospitals that perform at least nine heart transplants annually are “significantly more likely” to survive at least 10 years after their surgeries, according to a 2012 John Hopkins University study.

Gullickson received his heart transplant at age 53. The retired farmer kept in touch with two other patients, from Chicago and Rapid City, who had their surgeries the same time he did. They lived until about 10 years after their operations.

“They made their 10 years and that was it,” he said.

Gullickson began experiencing difficulties breathing five years before his surgery. His skin was pale and he was fatigued.

“I had no ambition, couldn’t do much anymore,” he said. “Recliner to the bathroom, back to the recliner. I wouldn’t have lasted much longer, actually.”

Up until 1990, he regularly visited Medcenter One Health Systems, the former site of Sanford Health. He learned he had congenital heart disease — a rare abnormality in the heart that develops before birth.

“I was doctoring and then I got to a point where (the doctor) said, well, you need a transplant,” Gullickson said.

At the time, the closest hospital performing heart transplants was at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He moved to an apartment in the Twin Cities with his family for the operation. He couldn’t drive and had to go to the clinic every day for three months.

“It was a lot harder on my wife than it was for me by far. She had to do all the running and find a place to live, and she was working,” Gullickson said. “My mother came and stayed and a couple friends came and stayed with me and so forth.”

At the University of Minnesota, Gullickson was treated by Sara Shumway, the daughter of heart transplant pioneer Norman Shumway, who was the first doctor to perform an adult human-to-human heart transplant. The heart Gullickson received belonged to a “young lad” who died in a car accident, he said.

Doctors began to notice the results of his surgery were unusual after the eight-hour operation.

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