February is national Heart Month in the U.S. and is a time to bring attention to the importance of heart health. One may feel that heart transplants are common in today’s society but the technology is only 52 years old. Half of the world’s heart transplants also take place in the U.S., according to data from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
“I was born in 1932,” said Artrip, “and I am an identical twin, I was born first. I’m Bill and he was Bob. We lived there in the coal camp. My dad was a coal loader in the coal mines and he died when he was 39 years old with a heart attack.”
The first successful heart transplant was performed in 1967, according to peer- reviewed research data from the NCBI, and the patient lived for 18 days, the second for 6 six hours. The prospect of living life was nonexistent for heart transplant patients in the late 1960s. One of the main challenges was getting a recipient’s body to accept the new organ.
The practice of heart transplants was nearly abandoned during the 1970s. The reason was the short life expectancy post-operation. In 1980 however, a new immunosuppressant developed from fungi spores made physicians and researchers explore new possibilities. By 2019 the average life expectancy post-heart transplant is 15 years, according to research by the Mayo Clinic, the nonprofit academic medical center.
Bill Artrip says that it was never a question of whether he was going to opt for a transplant in 1997 at the age of 65. The doctors at Vanderbilt had reservations because of his age. He is now one of the oldest heart transplant patients and one of the longest surviving.
“In October (1997) I had an electrocardiogram,” Artrip said in an interview, “and they (the doctors) said, ‘well we don’t know if you need a transplant.’ That October I deteriorated very rapidly, so when I went back in December my doctor said you have had it, more or less. They put me in the hospital on a Thursday and Sunday the nurses alerted me that I was going to get a call in a few minutes. The surgeon came in to talk to me, and asked, ‘do you realize you can die?’ and I said, ‘ do you realize I am making every effort now to, if you don’t get with it?’”
It was this humor and wit that Artrip attributes to helping him through the process. His wife Anita sits not far away laughing and jesting with Artrip about dates and names. The jousting wit could be the mark of a couple that has been married for 66 years. Artrip makes Anita blush when he says it was her support that saved his life.
“I came in after the surgery,” Anita said, “and I told Bill, ‘now that you are out of surgery you better get well because, we are going to Hawaii and I am wearing nothing but a grass skirt.’ A big old smile spread across his face and the doctors said that was the best thing I could have done.”
Artrip’s memories waking up after surgery are a bit different. He sheepishly admits to remembering Anita’s comments. For him waking up with another person’s heart was a time of discovery.
“It was remarkable,” Artrip said. “The first thing I noticed was that I could yawn. When you have heart failure that bad and you cannot take a deep breath and yawn, I noticed. I also noticed that I could feel my feet and my hands, which had not been there before.”
It is that love and support that Artrip said keeps him going after all these years. Artrip served in the Air Force as a cryptographer stationed in Japan during the Korean conflict. Upon his return he enrolled in classes at East Tennessee State College, later becoming ETSU in 1963, where he later graduated in three years.
Artrip ran a successful insurance business that he sold in 1997 when his heart failure became too severe for him to work. He stayed on as a consultant and still works from time to time. It is that work and reading that he says keeps his mind sharp.
Although he is a religious man Artrip said that he believes it is God’s hand at work in modern medicine. He exclaimed that in his opinion it is a miracle of God that man has the knowledge to be able to perform these types of procedures. He is quick to point out that had it not been for the surgery he would have died: “Is that not a miracle?”