Bill thanks Tom for the gift of life

The two never met, but Bill Carlson thinks about Tom nearly every day of his life—because Tom made Bill’s life possible.

“When I do something I couldn’t do six years ago, like run up the basement stairs, I say, ‘Thank you, Tom.’”

In 2009, Bill Carlson became University of Minnesota Medical Center's heart transplant recipient No. 683, allowing him more years with his family (back, from left): daughter, Lisa, and wife, Naomi and (front row) daughters Suzy and Andrea.

In 2009, Bill Carlson became University of Minnesota Medical Center’s heart transplant recipient No. 683, allowing him more years with his family (back, from left): daughter, Lisa, and wife, Naomi and (front row) daughters Suzy and Andrea.

Bill, 65, is a retired cabinet-maker and Vietnam War veteran who wasn’t “supposed” to see the age of 60. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 1991, during a visit to his physician because he “just wasn’t feeling right.”

Later, Bill was implanted with two pacemakers and a cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) but, in the fall of 2007, his doctor gave him bad news: He had entered end-stage congestive heart failure.

“He said there was not much more he could do to help me, and that I needed to get my affairs in order—he gave me six to 18 months to live,” Bill says.

In March 2008, Bill found himself in a small community hospital with a failing valve in his left ventricle.

He was transferred to University of Minnesota Medical Center for open-heart surgery. His care team implanted a left-ventricle assist device (LVAD), and Bill spent nearly six months in the hospital recovering.

Becoming No. 683

That December, after gaining weight and strength, Bill became eligible for a heart transplant, but he would have to wait six more months for a heart to become available.

He remembers receiving the phone call from his surgeon at 10:30 p.m., June 7, 2009.

“You’re supposed to get to the hospital within two hours of the phone call; we were there within 20 minutes!” Bill says.

“I was excited. There’s no other feeling in the world you can think of. It’s like winning the lottery. But, on the other hand, am I going to make it? You’re happy, but you’re scared. I thought a lot about the donor.”

At 5 a.m. the next day, Bill became the medical center’s 683rd heart transplant recipient.

“I went home after 11 days feeling wonderful, and that continues today.”

The recipient gives back

Bill is now a volunteer with LifeSource, spending several hours each week educating people about organ donation. He speaks at drivers’ education and high school health classes, as well as to new critical care nurses (with whom he discusses his extensive ICU experience).

He’s also on the board of the Second Chance for Life Foundation, which educates and supports transplant patients and families.

Most importantly, Bill is busy being a husband, father and grandfather—something that wouldn’t have been possible without Tom’s supreme generosity.

“Tom was 25 years old,” Bill says of the man who donated the heart that beats inside Bill’s chest. “He was an Iraq War veteran; he had a 2-month-old son. I wrote to his family several times through LifeSource and waited a year and a half to get a letter from his mom. I read it over and over and over.

“It’s difficult to comprehend but, without Tom, I would be long gone.”

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