By Steve Wideman Post Crescent Staff Writer
NEENAH. Wisconsin — Dave Paul knew the strange feeling in his chest wasn't right, but a long-standing fear of doctors overcame a gut instinct to seek medical help.
Through the years, Paul had led a fairly active lifestyle as an avid bowler at the former Lakeroad Lanes and as a fixture at Bridgewood Golf Course, where he liked to walk the course's 18 holes rather than use an electric cart.
He chose to ignore the unusual feeling and numerous other warning signs over time, including a rubber-stamp designation from Uncle Sam declaring him unfit for military service.
"I was drafted back in 1961, went to Milwaukee to have my physical and the doctors heard something in my heart. They labeled me 4F, and I went home. I just learned to live with it (heart problems). I was too scared to go to the doctor," Paul said.
Today, Paul, 70, starts each day by swallowing 14 pills, not even half of the 30 pills he ingests each day to, in part, ward off rejection of the transplanted heart that's been beating in his chest since Jan. 31, 1996.
American Heart Association statistics show a trend toward increasing years of survival after a heart transplant.
The latest statistics show 88 percent of males and 86 percent of females survive one year after a transplant, while 79 percent of males and 77 percent of females are alive after three years. The numbers go down slightly after five years with 73 percent of males and 69 percent of females surviving.
Paul celebrated his 15th year of living with a borrowed heart by doing his daily exercise routine — two to three hours of riding a stationary bike at the YMCA in Neenah.
As of Wednesday, there were 3,153 people on heart transplant waiting lists in the United States and another 68 waiting for heart and lung transplants, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
There are 126 hospitals in the U.S. that perform heart transplants, according to the agency.
Early Warning Signs
Paul's first bout with a serious illness occurred when he was six years old and growing up in Merrill.
"I came down with rheumatic fever," Paul recalls. "I was very sick. I remember my mother wrapped my legs up in wool. That's how the Germans did things."
Paul isn't sure if the fever had anything to do with his future medical problems, but as he grew, his heart developed issues.
"They call it an enlarged heart — a floppy heart," said his wife, Jan.
Paul was 21 in 1961 and concerned because he had put 50 pounds on his normal 145-pound body in six months.
"I was out one night and felt a different feeling in my body. I knew something was wrong," Paul said.
It was shortly after that when a military doctor heard the unusual noise in his heart.
A Temporary Fix
One of 15 children, Paul lived a normal life, raising three children and helping to run a youth bowling league. He did suffer from sleep apnea, a condition that interrupts the normal breathing pattern.
In 1975, Paul finally visited a doctor who diagnosed his enlarged heart condition.
"One valve in his heart was not closing. The blood was going back into his heart," Jan said. "His condition was known as cardiomyopathy."
Physicians implanted a stainless steel valve to fix the problem, Jan said.
All went well with Paul for the next 20 years until Nov. 22, 1995, following a night out with family members for pizza.
"That was the night Dave died on the living room floor," Jan said. "He was sitting on the couch when all of a sudden he laid his head back. Our granddaughter said, 'What's the matter with grandpa?' His heart was out of sync and had just stopped."
Jan immediately began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until paramedics arrived on the scene.
"They told me they didn't think he was going to make it," she said.
A Second Chance
By Nov. 24, 1995, Paul was one of 13 patients at University Hospital and Clinics in Madison waiting for heart transplants.
Jan would spend the next four months in a nearby hotel as her husband waited for, received and recovered from the life-saving procedure.
Initially, Paul was hooked up to an artificial heart/lung machine the size of a refrigerator. After eight weeks, that machine produced a side effect — mini strokes — that drastically changed the situation.
"The doctors said they were going nationwide to look for a heart donor," Jan said.
In a matter of hours, a donor — a 35-year-old woman who died from a brain condition — was located in Arkansas.
"Dave has a woman's heart and he seems so much more mellow with that heart than he was before," Jan said.
Of the 13 people on the waiting list with Paul, he remains the only one still living, Jan said.
He remained in the hospital for two months fighting off infection.
Paul said he is grateful to his wife for saving his life.
"If it weren't for her, I would not be here to see my grandchildren."
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