Hunziker receives gift of life
Wed, 04/24/2019 - 1:49pm admin
—Eleven months after surgery, Cresco man still doing well
“Every day, you get up and feel crappy and say to yourself, ‘I’ll feel better tomorrow.’ But you never do.” — Mark Hunziker before his heart transplant
CRESCO - May 29, 2018. That’s the day Mark Hunziker of Cresco was given a new lease on life. That’s the day he received a new heart.
“I was diagnosed with heart problems in 1973 during a high school athletic physical. They told me I couldn’t participate in sports. Being a farm kid, I went home and pitched manure,” Hunziker joked. At the time, he lived 40 miles east of Des Moines and was diagnosed with HCM.
[Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM or Hokum) is a condition in which a portion of the heart becomes thickened without an obvious cause. This results in the heart being less able to pump blood effectively. There are fewer than 200,000 cases diagnosed each year in the U.S.]
“Most kids who get it are in good shape and then just keel over,” he explained.
“In my early 20s, I went to Rochester for a checkup. I said I’d been playing on a co-ed softball team. They had a fit. I thought I better not tell them I was just in the haymow throwing bales in 100-degree heat!”
He was a strong kid who grew into a strong man. He married Nancy Kriener in 1986 and moved to Cresco.
The couple has five children (Kari, Kali, Kale, Kole and Kerigan) and just as many grandchildren (Parker, Ryder, Keaton, Ethan and Mila).
Starting to slow down
Fast forward nearly 40 years. The year is 2012. Mark is 55 years old and is noticing he has shortness of breath.
“I thought it was old age,” he admitted. “I worked eight hours a day in a fast-paced environment at Donaldson’s.” He had rotator cuff surgery, and his health just kept going downhill.
“Over the years, he would have some fainting spells,” Nancy said.
Mark eventually received a defibrillator. “I worked and carried on life. Then in 2015, things started getting to where I had more fluid build up, and congestive heart failure was setting in. I had been told when I was younger I may need a heart transplant when I got older.”
During this time he lost more of his strength. Nancy recalled, “His other love is his John Deere mower. When I took over the mowing, it was really hard on him.”
“For 30 years, I had done the driving and the mowing. It was to the point where Nancy was doing them, and she had to wheel me around in the wheelchair.”
Two years later, “I was told I needed an LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Device) or a heart transplant. The LVAD wouldn’t work, so I needed a transplant,” Mark stated. “It took me six months to believe I needed a heart transplant, then in October 2017, I agreed to do the evaluation at Mayo Clinic.
“Every day, you get up and feel crappy and say to yourself, ‘I’ll feel better tomorrow.’ But you never do.”
The evaluation is extensive. There are 10 different doctors patients need to see and be signed off from including sociology (seeing if the patient has a support system at home), pharmacy (to see if patients will take the medicine properly), financial aid and psychology (to see if the patient can deal with having another person’s organ in their body.
Nancy piped up, “We thought we’d fail the psychological one because of our sense of humor.” In actuality, their senses of humor probably got them through the tough months to come.
As Mark became weaker, he had a few stints in the hospital. He was admitted from Dec. 1-17 that year and was happy to be home for Christmas.
The whole family was at the Hunziker home for the holidays. Mark was walking from the garage to the kitchen when he collapsed. He had gone into cardiac arrest! His daughters performed CPR on their dad in the middle of the kitchen floor.
“By all accounts, he was dead,” said Nancy.
“The last thing I remember is walking in from the garage, and the next thing I know, I’m looking up at everyone,” Mark recalled.
“Sadly all five grandkids watched their Papa being loaded into an ambulance,” Nancy remarked.
He was airlifted to Rochester and was in the hospital several days. He was released and then finished his evaluation.
On the list
On Jan. 18, 2018, Mark was admitted to the transplant program and put on the 1A top priority list. He and others awaiting transplants are put into an ICU area until they get an organ and become fast friends. They ranged in age from 10-67.
“They want you to be active before and during being in the hospital,” Mark explained. “For every day of inactivity, it takes 3-7 days to recover.”
Nancy drove up every day. “I got used to the routine. I got up at 3:30 a.m. and left by 4:30 to beat the rush. I took a nap for a while and helped him through the day.”
Besides having his wife as a distraction, Mark also had a wedding to keep his mind occupied. His daughter, Kali (Chris), had already planned on getting married on May 12, but with her dad in the hospital, a change of venue was needed. The family was able to use the fifth floor chapel at St. Marys.
Mark couldn’t leave the hospital to be measured, so the tape measure came to him. “When he came in, I asked if he could do something with the IV pole, and he did.”
“Everyone has been so good to us,” Nancy said.
May 12 came without a hitch and Mark was able to walk his little girl down the aisle, and they had their father/daughter dance before the reception was moved to Osage.
The couple had become friends with Chaplain Corrine Thul. Although performing weddings is not required of her, she asked if she could since her duties are usually sad and not happy. The family was happy to oblige. She even married their son, Kole and Kelsey, Oct. 6, 2018 in Waterloo.
Everyone becomes family when going through such an ordeal.
“They told me it could be a wait of 3-6 months before a heart became available. When I got to the three-month time, only one out of four patients [at Mayo] had a new heart. I figured it would be 9-12 months of living in the hospital before I got a heart. More people die waiting for a transplant than they do if they get one.”
Mark continued, “For 17 years, there has been a support group meeting every Monday at 4 p.m. A lot of people who went through a transplant are there. They usually plan to attend the meeting if they are coming back for a check-up. I went because it was a change of scenery, but I learned stuff.
“You hear the good, the bad and the ugly. It is not if you have bumps in the road, but when.”
It takes a tremendous amount of effort to match donors. The blood type has to match, and the overall size of the individual has to be of similar stature.
“My blood type is B-Positive, so that became my motto . . . Be Positive,” Mark said.
Prayers are answered
“I told one of my doctors, ‘I’m not suicidal, but half the days, as crappy as I feel, I sometimes wonder if it is worth being here,’” said Mark. “Then I’d tell myself to pull up my big boy boxers and suck it up. I had it bad, but some people have it a lot harder than me.”
“He was at the point of not walking because he would get winded. His legs were almost black [because of no circulation,]” Nancy recalled.
Then “The call” came.
The day after Memorial Day — May 29, 2018.
It was 9 a.m.
“They said they had a heart that matched. If I wanted it, it was mine,” Mark recalled. “When you least expect it, you get the call. I called Nancy and said they had an organ.”
“Of course that was the one morning I wasn’t there,” Nancy laughed.
The rest of the day was spent on preparations. Mark showered thoroughly with an anti-bacterial soap, and by 4:30 p.m. he was ready to have the surgery. His granddaughter, Mila, was there to hold his hand the whole way.
His entire family was there, except for one daughter who was in Prague, but she flew home as soon as she could.
During the surgery, the family had to get Mark’s room all cleaned up. After surgery, transplant patients go to a completely different floor.
Between midnight and 12:30 a.m., the family was told the doctors were getting ready to close him up.
“He was a fighter since he got back to his room. He never complained. I was worried if he would have the fight left in him, and he did,” Nancy remarked.
Mark was given a certificate naming him the 642nd heart transplant at Mayo/St. Marys.
He recalls, “Right away I felt better. I didn’t realize I was as sick as I was. It is a gradual decrease in [strength]. After the surgery, people said how much better I looked.”
The donor family can write a letter to the organ recipient. It goes through a social worker. This happened with Mark. He was told there was a letter, and he could have it if he wanted. In return, he wrote a letter back.
“They wanted to know about me and my family. We couldn’t give many details, such as our name or where we live,” Mark stated.
The donor family asked to talk without the social worker, and Mark signed the consent form. They may be communicating in the near future.
“I have such gratitude for the family who decided or the donor who signed the box on the back of the license to donate their organs,” Nancy stressed.
Whenever there is a donation, St. Marys flies the Donate Life flag.
Although Mark still wears a mask when he goes for his check-ups to keep away from germs, he is feeling much better. “I can drive now, and I blew snow this winter. We don’t go out in public as much as I’d like, but you never know about bacteria.”
“We’ve been a good team,” Nancy said.
Although she tried to brush off his compliment, Mark said, “The caregiver is a vital part of the process.”
She smiled, “I could never imagine him not being here. Who would I make miserable?”
It’s a journey
Coming through the operation isn’t the end. It’s just the new beginning. “Just a week ago, I ended up in the hospital for a week. I had diarrhea and was dehydrated. I was scared the anti-rejection drugs weren’t working,” Mark stated. Things turned out well, but he still has to be careful.
Nancy was somber. “My biggest struggle was that someone had to die in order for someone to live. But it is a piece of them that is beating in his chest. They’re not gone. A piece of them lives on.”