Pioneering transplant patient: Life is ahead

“I don’t know what to say beyond thank you,” said Marvin Vandermolen, humbled by the gift of life. “I’ve thought about that a lot. What can you say?”

The heart pumped steadily as the transport module rolled into the Spectrum Health operating room for the first “heart in a box” transplant in Michigan.

Unlike most donor hearts, which arrive in coolers packed with ice, this heart remained warm and beating during the transition from donor to recipient.

Marvin Vandermolen, the man who received the transplant at the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, had no qualms about being the first in the state to receive a heart using the investigational device.

“I was on board from the get-go,” he said.

Spectrum Health heart specialists are part of a clinical trial investigating whether the new transport system can expand the donor pool and benefit people in need of new hearts.

The Richard DeVos Heart & Lung Transplant Program at the Meijer Heart Center is among seven centers nationwide taking part in the Expand Heart trial by TransMedics, the maker of the Organ Care System used to transport Vandermolen’s heart.

About 70 percent of hearts from organ donors―5,000 a year―go unused because they don’t meet criteria for transplant, said Michael Dickinson, MD, Spectrum Health’s medical director for heart transplants. In many cases, distance may be a factor. A donor heart transported on ice is viable for only about four hours.

The TransMedics study is examining whether the Organ Care System can keep hearts viable longer, by keeping them warm and perfused with oxygen-rich blood.

Surgeons used the system for the first time at Spectrum Health for a transplant April 16.

The operation provided a second chance at life for Vandermolen, a 63-year-old man from Comstock, Michigan. He and his wife, Carol, have two children and five grandchildren.

I’m looking forward to a good, normal, long life.

Marvin Vandermolen
Heart transplant recipient

Vandermolen has battled heart disease for 16 years. Diagnosed with cardiomyopathy at 47, he suffered a cardiac arrest in 2008 in which he didn’t breathe for nine minutes, Carol said.

With his heart failing in 2014, he underwent emergency surgery to get a left ventricular assist device, a mechanical device that helps the heart pump blood.

“The LVAD is a spectacular device,” Vandermolen said. “I’ve got nothing but good to say about it.”

He continued to live an active life, working on cars and doing yard work. But in the last year, he developed gastrointestinal bleeds and a clot in the device.

“There was no readily available fix, short of replacing the LVAD with a heart,” he said.

Vandermolen agreed to take part in the clinical trial for the TransMedics system. In his career as a technician at Eaton Corp., he had worked in new product development. He welcomed efforts to test a new transplant system.

“A ‘heart in a box’ was totally strange to me,” he said. “But it sounded like an excellent idea.”

On the evening of April 15, just as he finished power-washing the garage, Vandermolen got the call from the transplant program. A heart is available, a coordinator told him.

“It was, ‘OK, this is it,’” he said. “This is a big deal.”

He and Carol packed a bag and headed to Grand Rapids, Michigan.

To protect donor privacy, the doctors don’t release details about the donor’s identity or location.

An eight-person surgical team, led by heart surgeons Theodore Boeve, MD, FACS, and Edward Murphy, MD, FACS, traveled to another hospital and recovered the heart at about 1 a.m. April 16.

Using the Organ Care System, they transported it to the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center. Boeve and Martin Strueber, MD, transplanted the heart at about 7 a.m.

Travel and meatloaf

A month and three days later, Vandermolen prepared to trade his hospital gown for jeans and a T-shirt. His doctors cleared him to go home.

“I’m feeling very good,” he said.

The first thing he planned to do: Eat his wife’s home cooking.

“I’ve been lying here for two days now thinking about meatloaf,” he said.

He also looked forward to puttering around the house again, shopping for groceries and traveling with Carol.

He fought back tears as he spoke about his donor and the donor’s family.

“I don’t know what to say beyond thank you,” he said. “I’ve thought about that a lot. What can you say?”

The gift of new life was humbling.

“I’m nothing special,” he said.

Carol disagreed. In 39 years of marriage, she has seen how her husband put others first and shows kindness to everyone.

“He is a really special person,” she said. “He’s got good morals and good goals.”

She recalled a time when Vandermolen reached out in a very visible way to others who struggled with heart disease.

The idea began when he was in the Meijer Heart Center two years ago to get the left ventricular assist device. From his window, he watched people run laps and kids play games on the Grand Rapids Community College track.

“I was so tired, so weak,” he said. “I wanted to be out there so bad. I just kind of made the decision that someday, I’m going to be out of here. Someday, the weather is going to be nice and I’m going to walk that track.”

A year later, he returned to the track. By then, word of his plan had spread to the medical team at the transplant program. Some joined him on the walk. Patient services representative Dori Rothenthaler made a sign for him that said “Keep on fighting.”

He held it high as he walked the track, hoping to encourage any heart patients who might be looking out the window as he once did.

“I wanted to look up at the windows and show people you can do this,” he said. “There is a future.”

Looking ahead

With the transplant surgery behind him, Vandermolen said he is optimistic―and realistic―about his future.

“I’m looking forward to a good, normal, long life,” he said.

“His prognosis is good,” Dr. Strueber said. “The hurdle is behind and the life is ahead.”

Read more about the transplant programs at Spectrum Health.

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