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Change of heart

A new ticker was a life changer for Willmar man

Jim Swenson offers this piece of advice: “It’s okay to be disappointed. It’s not okay to be discouraged.”

If anyone qualifies to utter the aforementioned phrase it would be the personable 70-year-old from Willmar, who underwent heart-transplant surgery in 2004.

Swenson had lived the majority of his life with a defective heart, limiting his physical activities as both a child and an adult.

“When I was in grade school, I used to sit against the wall by myself in the classroom while the others were having phy ed,” said Swenson. “I didn’t have the stamina to participate in any physical activities. I would get winded right away.”

When Jim was eight years old, his parents were informed by doctors that their son would need open-heart surgery in an attempt to correct the defects in his heart.

“(My parents) left it up to me if I wanted to have the surgery or not,” Swenson explained. “I knew what the consequences were, but I knew something needed to be done. So I chose to have the surgery.”

But when University of Minnesota Hospital surgeons cracked open Swenson’s chest in 1950, they soon realized there was little they could do with the primitive technology of that era.

So Swenson returned home with his parents, accepting the fact that he would continue to be limited in his activities, while his friends were able to lead a normal life. He was unable to participate in any physical education classes past second grade.

Swenson actually had four defects in his heart, including a dime-sized hole in the upper chamber, a hole the size of a 50-cent piece in the lower chamber, a defective pulmonary valve, and a partially displaced aorta (the largest artery in the body).

His heart gradually deteriorated and, at the urging of Dr. John Meinert of Willmar, Swenson would again undergo open-heart surgery at the University of Minnesota Hospital. This time, the surgery would be performed on June 20, just weeks after he graduated from Willmar High School in 1960. During the surgical procedure, Swenson also received the first of several pacemakers he would eventually have throughout his adulthood.

To support the teenager and his family, which was well known in Willmar, 22 men drove to the University of Minnesota Hospital to donate blood.

“Back then they didn’t bank blood so they needed fresh blood,” explained Swenson. “But they also needed my blood type. So these men that matched my blood type took the time to travel all the way to Minneapolis and donate blood.”

Swenson admits his positive attitude helped him get through this difficult time and his willingness to fight may have been assisted by a young girl.

“There was a four-year old girl who had just had the same procedure as I did,” said Swenson, who had to be flat on his back for 21 days in the hospital. “And she was in the room next to mine in intensive care. I figured if that little squirt can do it, I can, too.”

Following recovery from the surgery, Swenson was able to do some of the physical activities he previously was unable to, including playing racquetball and golf with his friends.

“I still had a heart murmur,” he said. “So I still wasn’t able to run a lot or anything. But racquetball doesn’t require as much running as tennis or some other sports.

For the next 32 years, Swenson was relatively healthy. Then, in 1992, while working in the Twin Cities, he became easily winded and knew something wasn’t quite right. So he drove himself to the University of Minnesota Hospital where physicians discovered Swenson was suffering from a rapid heart rate. Over the next 12 years, Swenson had six pacemakers and four defibrillators inserted.

In 2003, his health began declining once again, this time much worse than before.

“I really couldn’t do much of anything,” he said. “I had no energy. I knew something more had to be done.”

The following year, Swenson underwent another open-heart surgery. This time, surgeons removed tissue around his heart in an attempt to improve its quality. But three months later, Swenson’s life was in jeopardy at age 62. The heart was barely functioning and it would take Swenson 30-45 minutes just to get dressed in the morning because he would tire so easily.

After extensive tests, physicians determined there were no other options and that Swenson would need a heart transplant. One of the stipulations when giving someone a heart transplant is that the patient not have any cancerous cells in his/her body. Swenson had prostrate cancer in 1998 at age 55.

“When they did tests on me for the transplant, they didn’t discover any cancer cells,” said Swenson. “I figured the good Lord still wanted me here.”

Swenson passed all the required tests to be put on the waiting list for a transplant. When a donor heart becomes available for transplant, the patient with the best match goes to the head of the list. Only seven days after being registered for a heart transplant, Swenson received news from LifeSource, an organ and tissue donor organization, that a match was available to him.

“Recipients are not told who or where the heart is from,” said Swenson. “They want a heart to be from someone under 45 years of age and to be a match. You have to have the same blood type and physical makeup. A woman couldn’t get Shaq’s (Shaquille O’Neal, a former 7-foot NBA star) heart or vice versa.”

On Sept. 18, 2004, Swenson became the University of Minnesota’s 523rd patient to undergo a heart transplant. Today, that number is nearly 800. Heart transplants are considered a last resort when a person has reached end-stage heart failure that does not respond to any other therapies, medicine, mechanical devices or surgery. The patient must also be likely to die without having a transplant. And, as sick as the patient may be to experience such heart failure, he/she must be otherwise healthy to be considered. Today, there are around 3,000 heart transplants done in the United States yearly.

“I remember one of our daughter’s coming into Jim’s room before the surgery and she was really scared and nervous,” said Barb Swenson, Jim’s wife of 47 years. “And Jim told her that he loved her very much and not to worry because no matter what happened it was a ‘win-win situation.’ That’s his Christian faith background. Jim just takes each day as it comes. The support of many people and his attitude were remarkable.”

Swenson also credits his wife and children with helping him through such a trying period.

“Caregivers are often forgotten during times like this,” he maintained. “It’s so important to a survivor to have the support of his family and friends.”

The Swensons have three children; Jennifer of Minneapolis, Jill of Minneapolis and Paul of Chicago.

Jim now exercises every day now, including walking and working with weights.

“I feel good,” he said, flashing a smile that revealed his zest for life. “Doctors told me I’ll likely die from cancer or something else before I’ll die of something related to the heart.”

Swenson had another bout with cancer in 2010, six years after his heart transplant. A tumor the size of a fist was discovered in his small intestine during a CAT Scan. Surgeons removed 13 inches of his small intestine and he also had to undergo chemotherapy treatments at the University of Minnesota Cancer Center.

Swenson now has a heart checkup every two years at the U of M Hospital and has bloodwork every six months at Affiliated Community Medical Centers in Willmar.

Because his health allows it, Swenson continues to work as a field sales representative for the National Federation of Independent Business. His job is to subscribe new members, renew existing members and keep them apprised of government activities in St. Paul and Washington, D.C.

He also speaks to groups about the importance of donating organs.

“Every 17 seconds, someone dies in the United States waiting for an organ,” he said, somberly. “Not just a heart, but also lung, liver, kidney, pancreas and small intestine. There are around 115,000 people in the United States currently waiting for a (solid organ) donor.” Despite knowing how short life can be, Swenson insists his Bucket List is modest.

“I’d like to play par golf,” he chuckled. “But that’s not going to happen now. I’d like to get a two-seat sports car and take Barbara and just travel around the country.”

Swenson has tried to find out who the donor of his heart was. LifeSource protects the privacy of the donor’s family unless they agree to give the information to the recipient. Swenson wrote to LifeSource, who then edited his letter to make sure there is no information given to the donor’s family that might disclose who he is or where he lives, and forwarded it to the family. If they do not respond, the recipient may never know who the donor was.

Three years after his transplant, Swenson discovered through a source that his heart came from a 17-year-old female in Wichita, Kansas, and that she had died in some sort of an accident. But he knows nothing else about the donor.

“I hope to find out some day,” he said. “Maybe it’s still too painful for the family to talk about right now.”

And if he ever does discover the identity of the donor, he’d like the chance to thank the family … from the bottom of his … er, her heart.”

For those wishing to become an organ donor or to learn more about donating, visit or register to become a donor on your driver’s license.

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