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Heart of gold
Unselfish acts save the lives of two in need

By CATHY BREITENBUGHER

 

Kilian Hintz got a second chance at life when he was just 17 years old. For Harry Schrap, it came at the age of 69.

Each received a transplanted heart after his own was irreparably damaged by a viral infection.

"You look at life as filled with blessings, and this is just another one," says Schrap, now 71. "The opportunity to talk about it is another blessing, to make people aware of how important it is to be an organ donor."

Hintz came to Milwaukee for medical care from his hometown of Plover, in central Wisconsin. He underwent his transplant at Childrenís Hospital of Wisconsin on March 18, 2010, after three months on the waiting list.

Schrap, who lives in Grafton, was on and off and then back on the list over a 10-month period before his transplant surgery at Aurora St. Lukeís Medical Center on March 10, 2009.

As of early June, nearly 3,200 people across the country (74 in Wisconsin) were waiting for a donor heart, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. The national waiting list for all organs exceeds 111,500 people.

When Schrap experienced low energy and shortness of breath in 1999, he thought he might have walking pneumonia. A checkup revealed dilated cardiomyopathy, an enlargement of heartís ventricles. With his heart working at only one-fourth its capacity, Schrap was forced immediately into retirement at age 58.

Medication helped for about eight years, but Schrap later needed a defibrillator and a pacemaker. By early 2008, doctors began suggesting a transplant. "This is when it gets to be a little scary," recalls Schrap.

Hintz was sick one weekend in late August 2009, and when his mother took him to a doctor in Stevens Point, they were told to go straight to Marshfield Clinic for further evaluation. Just a few months removed from competing as a sprinter and varsity high jumper for Stevens Point Area High School, Hintz spent the following week in the hospital for tests as doctors tried to determine what kind of virus was damaging his heart. He, too, was suffering from dilated cardiomyopathy.

"It came as such a shock," says his mother, Sabine. "They really donít know what caused it."

Hintz was able to start his junior year of high school, aided by medication, before he suffered another setback and again ended up in the ICU at Marshfield. Three days later, in mid-December 2009, he was taken to Childrenís and placed on the transplant list.

To slow the decline in heart function, both Schrap and Hintz were implanted with a ventricular assist device. A VAD is battery-operated, mechanical pump-type device that takes over some of the work of the heart.

Schrap didnít do well with his VAD at first, but rallied and was able to return home, where his wife, Carol, had a chair lift installed so he wouldnít have to climb the stairs into their second-floor condo. Better yet, he was put back on the transplant list and ordered to stay within a two-hour drive of St. Lukeís.

After Hintz got his VAD, he developed a painful stomach infection and had to receive nutrition intravenously. As he gradually improved, he remained at Childrenís, where hospital staff and his teachers in Stevens Point faxed assignments back and forth. His parents and brother, Karsten, then 14, visited on weekends. "I got used to it," says Hintz. "I had a lot of people helping me through the whole thing."

In an era of instant communication, technology is only as good as the human beings using it. It doesnít matter how many phone numbers the transplant center has for a patient if nobody picks up the call.

Schrap and his wife spent March 9, 2009, going out to lunch and visiting a friend. "I had charged my cell phone the night before, put it in my pocket and never turned it on," he says.

When they returned home around 5:30 p.m., the Schraps had a series of voice mails from St. Lukeís on their home phone. When they called the hospital, they were told that a donor heart had become available. Fortunately, they hadnít missed out. "Youíre so excited you canít believe it," says Carol, who sped Harry to the hospital within an hour.

The night of March 17, 2010, Sabine and her husband, Mark, had gone to bed, but the pager theyíd been given by Childrenís lay, forgotten, on a desk downstairs. Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Kilian was still awake at 2 a.m. when hospital staff came to his room and told him he would be getting his new heart within hours.

"When I tried calling my parents, it was kind of weird because no one answered," he recalls. "I tried four different phones and eventually I texted my brother."

"Both my boys sleep with their phones," says Sabine Hintz. "Good thing for teenagers and their cell phones and text messaging."

With the rest of his family making the two and a half-hour drive to Milwaukee, Hintz was prepped for surgery.

Ten days after receiving his new heart, Schrap was discharged from the hospital. For the past two years, he and his wife ó high school sweethearts ó have been able to spend time with family and friends wherever they want. Last winter, they drove to Arizona and California.

Hintz, now 18, got his first car a few months ago and graduated on time from high school. He walks and swims for exercise, and likes to just hang out with friends. This fall, heíll begin studying accounting at UW-Stevens Point, his tuition paid in part by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In about a year, he anticipates being able to reduce his post-transplant medication.

"Itís nice being back together (as a family) again, and we are thankful for that," says Sabine Hintz.

When they get the chance, both families urge people to become organ donors. The Schrapsí two children already are registered. The day of Hintzís surgery, several of his aunts, uncles and cousins signed up.

Neither Schrap nor Hintzís knows whose hearts saved their lives. Any letters either the donor or recipient want to send ó last names and cities are not included ó are forwarded by the Wisconsin Donor Network and the hospitals.

"Itís a very sensitive and touchy subject," says Sabine Hintz. "They lost someone and gave the heart away, and we have new life."

A few months after he received his transplant, Schrap sat down with his wife to write a letter they would place into a sympathy card. They kept a copy for themselves, and as Schrap reads from it, he chokes up.

"Words canít express my gratitude for the donation of a family memberís heart Ö"