STANFORD — Willem van Buuren is a "living legend"--or at least his heart is. He is America's longest surviving heart transplant recipient and a celebrity in hospital circles.
When he had an attack of shingles and went to the Stanford Medical Center emergency room recently, the attending physician did a double take.
"You're a living legend," the doctor gasped as other physicians quickly gathered to catch a glimpse of the 57-year-old redhead.
Although he does not invite the attention, he is used to it. Having received his new heart in January, 1970, Van Buuren is American's longest surviving heart transplant patient. Only Emmanuel Vitria of France, who got his heart in November, 1968, has survived longer after a transplant.
Van Buuren, who lives in San Rafael, emigrated from the Netherlands with his wife, Corrie, and their three young children in 1963. Six years later, a series of heart attacks destroyed 80% of his heart function and he became a patient of Dr. Norman Shumway at Stanford Medical Center. Transplant surgery was still considered experimental.
Year Better Than 3 Months
Shumway had done only 18 transplants, and two-thirds of his patients were dead. But his success rate was still three times higher than any other surgeon's.
"I thought, maybe a year sounds better than three months," Van Buuren said. "So I made up my mind it was going to work. You're 40. You don't want to die. You have too many things you want to do."
Doctors believed that Van Buuren had only three weeks to live when he received a heart that became available during the New Year's holiday.
He's been going strong ever since, and making light of Stanford being committed to giving him free medical care for the rest of his life. "They had no idea I'd last," he chuckled.
The first few years after the transplant, Van Buuren said he diligently observed strict rules about exercise and diet. Now his bike sits behind his apartment with a flat tire and he's no fanatic about keeping salt out of his diet.
He said he once checked into the hospital every time he caught a cold, but nowadays the heart transplant recipient doesn't go back unless it's serious.
"Hospitals are boring," he said.
Has Become Househusband
He has been frustrated that he cannot work full-time, he said, "but now there are so many things to do. I'm a househusband. I do shopping. I do laundry.
"It's not digging a ditch, but it's work," Van Buuren said. "I have to see people. One thing I cannot do is stay in the house all day."
Van Buuren consumes 20 to 25 pills a day, including steroids, a diuretic and an anti-coagulant to keep his body from rejecting the heart. The drugs impair his concentration, sap his energy and suppress his immunological system, making him more susceptible to infection.
"I'm fatigued all the time and my muscles ache all the time," he said. "I get up and I take my pills, and an hour or so later I start feeling better. Afternoon is even better than the mornings."
The drugs, however, are only a minor annoyance.
"I have enjoyed my life these last 16 years. Maybe I have enjoyed it a little more because of the transplant," Van Buuren said. "You realize you're vulnerable."