By Pam Mellskog
LONGMONT — Jim Telson’s lifesaving heart transplant experience began at 11:30 p.m. when the phone rang as he soaked in the bathtub at home reading information about what to expect.
As the seventh person then waiting in Colorado for a new heart, Telson, 48, figured he had six months to a year before he got the call.
Staff at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, one of four transplant hospitals statewide, gave him that timeline after he completed the screening process there.
Then they promised to mail him a pager.
“We got the pager the day after he got the heart,” said his wife, Tina Telson, 38, smiling through damp eyes at the four-day turnaround.
The couple and their daughter, Danielle, 16, recently shared their story of that September day in 2006 to show how a donor’s death changes life for a sick person waiting on a list.
Earlier this month in Colorado, 1,765 people waited for an organ transplant — 38 of them for a heart, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which manages a national waiting list.
During a physical examination related to bronchitis when Telson was 15, his family doctor heard a heart murmur and referred him to a cardiologist.
That murmur turned out to be hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a progressive condition that thickens the walls of the heart and eventually ruins the organ’s ability to contract and relax properly.
As a teenager, Telson felt fine and looked good.
“Because it happens gradually, I thought, ‘Well, I’m just getting older,’” Telson said of his mounting fatigue. “But the doctors told me I didn’t know how sick I was.”
When they spelled out in 2006 that he would need a heart transplant as soon as possible, it still struck the salesman as surreal.
“‘Is there not a Plan B?’ That’s exactly what I told him,” Telson said.
There wasn’t. There was only a Plan A. So Telson took the 11:30 p.m. notification call, drove with his wife and daughter from Longmont to Denver, and walked onto the hospital’s transplant floor just before 1 a.m. to be prepped for surgery.
At 9:30 a.m., he underwent the six-hour transplant. He woke up looking immediately better for it, Tina Telson said.
“The second I walked in after surgery, his lips were bright red,” she said. “I had not ever seen him with that much color in 16 years of knowing him.”
Doctors can transplant six organs: the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas and small intestine.
“But a single donor can save up to eight people,” Donor Alliance spokeswoman Jennifer Moe said, referring to kidneys and lungs, which come in twos.
One tissue donor can help up to 100 people in need of skin, corneas, bone, tendon, ligaments and heart valves, she said.
The Denver-based Donor Alliance is one of 58 organizations designated by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to facilitate the donation and recovery of organs for those in need of transplants.
Jim Telson’s donor turned out to be a 17-year-old boy killed in an accident in Casper, Wyo.
After the boy’s death, authorities in Wyoming contacted Donor Alliance. The organization then registered the heart with UNOS to find a match in the database.
With his universal AB blood type and body size, Jim Telson’s name came up.
The University of Colorado Hospital took on the transplant and made the call to the Telsons.
Many people don’t register as organ donors because of myths, Moe said. Some, for instance, fear doctors might not work as hard to save a life if they know that person is an organ or tissue donor.
“Doctors involved in the patient’s care before death are not involved in the recovery or transplantation of organs and tissue after that death,” she said. “It’s two separate (medical) teams, so there’s no conflict of interest.”
As for religious objections, most world religions consider organ and tissue donation an act of charity, she added.
Jim Telson, whose daughter was diagnosed with the same heart condition within one week of her father’s transplant, views it that way and that act has gone a long way toward improving his quality of life.
Before the transplant, he needed an oxygen mask and had lost 50 pounds. He could barely walk a block and relied on a neighbor to mow his lawn.
“Now, it’s no problem,” he said. “I just zip through it.”
“You Have the Power to Save Lives – Sign Your Donor Card & Tell Your Loved Ones of Your Decision”
Your generosity can save up to eight lives through organ donation and one tissue donor can help up to 100 other people by donating skin, corneas, bone, tendon, ligaments and heart valves