Heart Transplant: Mark Zehren

"Bridge to a new heart"

Healthy, active and physically fit his entire life, 30-year-old Mark Zehren of Lomira, Wisconsin, never imagined anything getting in the way of his golf game. Less than three years later, however, Mark had to adjust his swing to accommodate the portable battery pack that kept his heart from stopping while he waited for his name to come up on the national organ donor waiting list. At age 33, Mark was in need of a heart transplant.

"I had been feeling sick, but it didn't seem like a big deal, just some congestion," Mark recalls of the start of his illness in August 1996. "Over the course of a few weeks, though, it became increasingly difficult to breathe. One day when I was golfing, I buckled over from an intense pain in my abdomen." Not satisfied with the "wait and see" approach of the first physician he saw, Mark drove to the Milwaukee area to see a cardiologist. He was admitted to a hospital immediately. The diagnosis was cardiomyopathy, or congestive heart failure, the result of a virus that attacked his heart. If he hadn't been treated, his doctor said, he would not have lived much longer.

While time is always of the essence in organ transplantation, it quickly became the focal point in Mark's case. Less than two months after being listed, the pumping efficiency of his heart dropped to an all time low. Mark was admitted to Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center to remain hospitalized while waiting for a transplant. On January 24, he called a lawyer to write his will. His heart stopped the following evening.

Placing a balloon pump on his heart, the medical team at St. Luke's was able to get Mark's heart going again. That evening, Francis Downey, MD, another transplant surgeon, implanted a "left ventricular assist device (LVAD) into Mark's chest to provide long term support to Mark's heart while he awaited transplantation. Mark was discharged from St. Luke's on February 19, following rehabilitation to get used to the LVAD.

On the evening of July 9, 1999, Linda Menzia, RN, Mark's transplant coordinator at St. Luke's, called him with the incredible news that a heart was available. The next day, his transplant surgeons performed the transplant, and within two weeks, after a relatively smooth recovery in the hospital, Mark was home in Lomira with a new heart. Less than two months later, he golfed with his friends in a Labor Day weekend tournament.

"Not only are the doctors and nurses at St. Luke's incredible, caring people, but so are all the grieving families who have to make the hardest choice of their lives. Organ donors, donor families and anyone intending to be a donor if misfortune happens upon them, are truly real miracle workers."