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Former GH man still living after 1982 heart transplant

Len Painter • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:18 AM

“I’ve been fortunate to be able to have worked on this for three and a half years,” Wierenga said proudly.

Thirty years ago, it appeared unlikely that Wierenga would realize his dream of becoming an architect with a major architectural company.

Wierenga, now 55, was diagnosed at age 25 with cardiomyopathy — a diseased heart. The disease severely weakens the heart muscle.

The 1974 Grand Haven High School graduate was in his last year of graduate school at Georgia Tech when doctors at Emory University diagnosed his heart disease. In September 1981, he was forced to drop out of school for bed rest and medication.

In March 1982, Wierenga lay in a Muskegon hospital bed in serious condition. Doctors told him the only thing that could save his life was a heart transplant.

But a major obstacle stood in the way of a heart transplant: Wierenga didn’t have health insurance. His student health insurance had lapsed. Wierenga had received assistance from Medicaid for his earlier medical expenses, but Medicaid wouldn’t pay for a heart transplant — considered experimental at the time.

Doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Hospital agreed to perform the heart transplant without asking for upfront money.

Then Grand Haven-area residents stepped up, setting up a fund for Wierenga at a local bank. The fund reached $15,000 at the time of Wierenga’s transplant. The fund would eventually grow to more than $60,000 — enough money to pay for the heart transplant.

All he needed was a new heart, which would match his blood type.

The call came in April 17, 1982. A heart was brought in from the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and Wierenga was flown to Pittsburgh and a new heart was put in place. The procedure began at 10:45 p.m., and he was out of surgery by 1:30 a.m.

There were some minor setbacks, as Wierenga had to go back into the operating room that morning to stop leakage around his aorta. By Monday, he was listed in fair condition and moved out of intensive care.

For Joyce Wierenga, Jeffrey’s mother, the heart transplant was nothing short of a miracle.

“I thought we were going to lose him when he became ill,” recalled Joyce, who makes her home in Grand Haven. “I never dreamed that he would live such a productive life and have so many good experiences.”

Although heart transplants were rare in the 1980s, Jeffrey Wierenga remained upbeat during the ordeal. He recalled that he had had several dreams about being helped by God.

“I knew everything was going to be all right,” Wierenga told the Tribune in a telephone interview last week.

Wierenga even told his doctors that he planned to visit three prominent architectural sites in Pittsburgh following his transplant. He did just that — and, after several weeks, he was back in Michigan riding his bicycle. He eventually returned to Georgia Tech to complete his architectural studies.

Wierenga, who is now a senior associate with TVS Design — an Atlanta-based architectural firm. He keeps busy overseeing several projects, including one that he considers one of the most dynamic buildings he has ever worked on — The Music City Center in Nashville.

“I’ve been fortunate to have worked on a number of significant projects,” he said.

When he isn’t involved with work, Wierenga enjoys traveling and has been a frequent spectator at Georgia Tech football and basketball games. He has also taken a number of trips to Europe, visiting some of the famous architectural sites throughout the world. He also enjoys taking photographs, and teaching architectural design and history classes.

Wierenga has suffered some setbacks in the past year. His kidney shut down and he now has to undergo dialysis treatment three times a week. A kidney transplant is not an option for heart transplant patients.

“Last year was rough,” he said.

Wierenga suffered a staph infection, which caused a significant hit on his kidney. Doctors had warned Wierenga eight years ago that his kidney could stop functioning.

Even with the dialysis treatment, Wierenga feels fortunate to have lived such a productive life.

“It is remarkable how many things I’ve been able to do,” he said. “I’ve been able to do a lot of traveling.”

Wierenga’s successful heart transplant even landed him an appearance on the “Phil Donahue Show.”

“When I was at Georgia Tech, I always used to watch his show, and it turns out I was on the show,” Wierenga said.

Wierenga believes he may be the longest-living heart transplant patient from the University of Pittsburgh. Two other heart patients had been living longer, but one has since died and the other required a second heart transplant.

Wierenga said he owes a debt of gratitude to Grand Haven-area residents.

“I can’t state how grateful I am toward the great generosity of the people in the Tri-Cities and the state of Michigan in helping with the financial burden of my transplant,” he said.

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