Former resident lived life at its fullest

I’ve written many stories during my long career as a journalist. Some stand out more than others.
Jan 9, 2013

Among those that standout is a story I wrote in January 2012 about former Grand Haven resident Jeff Wierenga, who was believed to be the oldest living person with a heart transplant.

Wierenga, 56, died on New Year’s Eve at his home. The new heart he received in 1982 added 30 years to his life.

A former colleague of mine, John Holland — who was the Tribune’s composing room foreman — came by my desk before I retired and suggested a follow-up story on Wierenga. Holland proceeded to tell me about how the community rallied around Wierenga, helping him to raise enough money for a heart transplant at the University of Pittsburgh hospital. He also told me that the Tribune sent a reporter to Pittsburgh to follow Wierenga’s progress.

I thought John had a great idea. The story so intrigued me that I wanted to be the one to write it.

John told me that Jeff Wierenga still had family in Grand Haven. I was able to contact his sister, Judy Wierenga of Grand Haven, and she graciously provided me with Jeff’s cell phone number.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Wierenga when I asked him for an interview. He was a celebrity of sorts, having appeared on national television and having worked as a prominent architect.

Wierenga didn’t hesitate when I asked him for an interview. He told me he’d be glad to do it.

 I had one of the most interesting interviews of my career. Wierenga had a powerful story to tell.

At age 25, he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy — a diseased heart. Doctors told him he was in need of a new heart.

Wierenga began to become ill when he was a graduate student at Georgia Tech University. He had to drop out of school, thus losing his health insurance. He received assistance from Medicaid, but Medicaid wouldn’t pay for a heart transplant, which was considered experimental at the time.

Fortunately, Grand Haven-area residents set up a fund for Wierenga at a local bank. University of Pittsburgh doctors agreed to perform the transplant without any upfront money.

A heart was brought in from Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and Wierenga was flown from Mercy Hospital in Muskegon to Pittsburgh for the transplant.

The surgery was a success. Just months following the surgery, Wierenga was riding his bicycle and was able to return to his architectural graduate classes at Georgia Tech.

I remember vividly how proud Wierenga was of his architectural career. When we talked, he was finishing up work on one of his most significant projects. Wierenga was a senior associate with TVS Design, an Atlanta-based architectural firm. He helped design the Music City Center in Nashville, Tenn. — a 1.2 million-square-foot convention center.

Wierenga also told me that he was a big fan of Georgia Tech football and basketball teams. He often attended their games.

But Wierenga began to suffer health setbacks in recent years. He told me his kidney had shut down and he had to undergo dialysis treatment three times a week. He said a kidney transplant was not an option for a heart transplant recipient.

Doctors had warned Wierenga that his kidney might stop functioning. Wierenga developed a staph infection that took its toll on his kidney.

But Wierenga didn’t feel sorry for himself. He knew that his new heart enabled him to live much longer. He got to travel around the world, visiting some of the most important architectural sites. He also enjoyed photography and teaching architectural classes.

Wierenga also had fond memories of his time in Grand Haven.

“I can’t state enough 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 told me a year ago.

Jeffrey Wierenga, with his new heart, lived life at its fullest. He was a great example of how someone could overcome great odds and survive.

 

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