Edgerton man marks 20th anniversary of heart transplant

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

— Gary Bullion doesn’t recall the voices of his family as he curled into a fetal position on his bed.

Nor does he recall the nurses who cared for him, but he clearly remembers the words of the doctor who bent toward him:

“We have a heart for you.”

Twenty years ago this month, doctors transplanted the heart of a teenager into the Edgerton man at University Hospital, Madison. The surgery allowed Gary to be alive for the birth of his third grandchild.

“I had two days left to find a heart or I would have died,” he said. “Because of what I’ve been through, I live day by day.”

Gary, 69, revels in small things.

He grows milkweed in sunny windows to plant outside for monarch butterflies.

He plays in a little band at the Janesville Senior Center.

He builds creative things, including a replica of the TARDIS, a magnificent model of the time machine from the popular British TV series “Doctor Who.”

“I always have some kind of project going,” he said.

Gary is a wildlife artist who sketches waterfowl with pen and ink. He drew a detailed picture of geese on a riverbank while waiting for his transplant. The sketch hangs in his living room as a daily reminder of his journey back from near death.

Before his illness forced him to retire, Gary was the art director at Fort Atkinson’s NASCO. His health began sliding in the mid-1980s, when he learned that he had cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle. For awhile, Gary took medicine to help his heart pump blood.

In the later stage of illness, he prepared his children—B.J., David and Kristi Robinson, all of Edgerton—for his death.

Kristi never expected her father to still be in her life today.

“We are very lucky to have him,” she said. “It seems like the transplant happened a lifetime ago.”

Gary considers himself blessed.

“When I was first diagnosed, my doctor told me I might get five years,” Gary said. “I never thought I would be here this long.”

Doctors agree that Gary has defied the odds.

“To get to 20 years is clearly a milestone and a remarkable achievement,” said Maryl Johnson, a doctor on the faculty of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. She came to the UW as medical director of heart failure and transplantation in 2002.

“In general, more people are living longer with transplants,” she said. “The outcomes following transplants have improved with each decade.”

From 1992 to 2002, about 50 percent of heart-transplant patients lived almost 11 years. In the previous decade, the average was only 8.5 years.

“We are making incremental progress,” Johnson said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that we still have chronic problems with anti-rejection drugs. They decrease the body’s ability to fight off infections and malignancies.”

Both she and Gary emphasize that the donor shortage is not going away.

“Many patients have artificial pumps implanted until we can find them donors,” Johnson said. “The gift of life cannot occur without organ donation. We all have to be thankful for the donor families who have allowed us to save lives like Gary’s through the years.”

To legally authorize organ, tissue and eye donations, people can sign up with the Wisconsin Donor Registry online.

During the years, many of Gary’s friends have died.

“It seems strange that they are gone, and I am still here,” he said.

He has struggled with the fact that a young man had to lose his life for him to live. When a Madison teenager died in an accident, Gary and several others benefited from the teen’s organs.

After the transplant, some people noticed that Gary was more easygoing.

“I get serious about certain things, but I try to take life on the lighter side,” he said. “It amazes me that I am still here.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.


Last updated: 10:33 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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