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Second Chances

Christina Fuoco-Karasinski | Mar 25, 2013, midnight

Alan Shipley has, what he calls, a “great life.” At 76, he still works out at the gym four to five days a week. He chases around his baseball-loving grandchildren, and is prepping to volunteer at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

More than 17 years ago, he never imagined performing such activities. Arteriosclerosis left him struggling for breath, resulting in two bypass surgeries, one in 1984 and the other in 1985.

But a heart transplant transformed his life, allowing him to watch his grandchildren grow, participate in senior athletic competitions and volunteer in Scottsdale.

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Alan Shipley will celebrate the 17th anniversary of his heart transplant at The University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson on Feb. 26.

On Feb. 26, he will celebrate the 17th anniversary of his second chance at life. He’s not taking any of it for granted, either.

“So many people sit on their rear ends,” Shipley says about post-transplant patients. “Some of them (are depressed) for a year and then they kind of snap out of it. I know people who have been out at least 10 years. It’s a frightening thing, having a transplant. You’ve gone through a lot.”

Last year, 821 Baby Boomers between the ages of 50 and 64 received heart transplants, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). Of the 1,968 total heart transplants in 2012, 296 were folks ages 65 and older.

Dr. Francisco Arabia of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Heart Institute in Los Angeles, notes the average lifespan for 50 to 60 percent of the patients is 10 years. However, he has seen recipients live for 20-plus years

“We are slowly learning how to select a donor, how to select a recipient and what medications to give,” says Dr. Arabia, who formerly worked at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and The University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson. “One of the most important facts is they have to be very compliant, follow up with their transplant team very closely in case they start developing infections or evidence of rejection to make sure things are OK.”

Depression is common amongst transplant recipients, Dr. Arabia says. But there could be several reasons for it.

“Some people are so happy because their life has changed,” he explains. “Others realize that now they’re going to be on medication forever. Others are affected by the medications. Some of the medications may affect their moods. Then there are others who realize for them to be alive, someone had to die.”

Sometimes it helps “tremendously” when the recipients get to meet the donor family.

“On one side, they’re very happy to meet the donor family,” Dr. Arabia contends. “On the other hand, they realize how much pain that family went through.”

Total Artificial Heart

Such was the case with former seven-term State Sen. Leo Corbet. His life was transformed twice. He was suffering from what doctors thought was ischemic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that causes the left ventricle to pump poorly. When Corbet’s heart was removed so he could be fitted with the total artificial heart on March 20, 2001, doctors found his aortic valve was corroded. He received a “real heart” on June 15, 2001, at The University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson, and was treated by Dr. Arabia.

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