For Reverend Jack Tillery, every day is a gift.
But the double organ transplant recipient said the gift of his life wouldn’t be possible if not for an organ donor’s selflessness last November, when a team of Ochsner Medical Center doctors and nurses replaced Tillery’s heart and kidney.
“There are just so many things that I look back on, and I’m kind of in awe,” Tillery said. “It’s just hard for me to believe that I’m on the other side of the surgery. I just have to pinch myself sometimes. It really is amazing.”
Tillery, a Moss Bluff resident, began making pilgrimages to Ochsner Medical Center in the spring of 2007 after his heart disease progressed to full blown heart failure.
“My father’s side of the family has a horrible heart disease history,” he said. “I was 40 years old in 1997 when I had my very first heart attack and had five bypasses. From that point on, it was up and down.”
Suffering from aggressive malignant arteriosclerosis, Tillery’s prognosis didn’t stay good for long.
In January 2009, Tillery was on his way to Nepal with members of the First Baptist Church of Moss Bluff, where he served as missions pastor, when his heart stopped on a flight from London to Doha, Qatar in the Middle East.
Fortunately, one of Tillery’s fellow missionaries on the flight was a nurse and was able to perform CPR until his heart started beating again, but that incident would mark the start of his transplant journey.
“I think 2009 was a year that I’ll never forget, and I hope and pray I’ll never have to go through again,” he said. “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been in and out of the hospital.”
On the advice of his regular cardiologist in Lake Charles, Tillery came to Ochsner for transplant surgery after returning from the Middle East, but years of heart failure had taken a toll on his kidneys.
Ochsner Medical Center cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Michael Bates said it had been clear Tillery needed a heart transplant for some time, but the damage to his kidneys complicated the procedure.
“The problem with people in heart failure is they are in a low-flow state, so the organs get low blood flow, and the kidneys are affected by that dramatically sometimes,” Bates said. “If your kidneys are pretty marginal going into the transplant, chances are they are going to fail over time.”
Dr. Ari Cohen, the surgical director of Ochsner’s kidney transplant program, said the combination of the heart and kidney transplant made Tillery’s case unique.
“Last year, there were approximately 2,200 hearts transplanted nationwide and about 16,000 kidney transplants,” Cohen said. “There were only 60 combined heart/kidney transplants, so it’s a relatively rare event to occur.”
Complicating matters even further was Tillery’s blood type, which seriously limited the donor pool.
“There were some pretty challenging odds,” Tillery said. “Being O positive complicated things because O positive blood type donors are rare, and it’s got to be an exact match. It’s not like I could have a universal donor.”
Both organs had to come from a single donor to reduce the risk of Tillery’s body rejecting the new tissue, Cohen said.
Tillery said the last thing he expected when he was placed on the list for a new heart and kidney was a quick response, but the Ochsner donor team was able to line up the organs within a few months.
While waiting for a donor, Tillery said he drew inspiration from Psalm 27:13: “I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Tillery said the Bible verse gave him the strength to endure the waiting period and subsequent transplant procedure.
“It happened pretty quick,” he said. “I was listed in July, and I got the call in November. They really pushed hard to get me taken care of quickly.”
Bates said a network of dozens of Ochsner employees from surgeons and nurses to organ procurement specialists worked together to save Tillery’s life.
“We were touch and go for a while,” Bates said. “It took a lot of work, and it wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination for many different reasons… There were a lot of people involved to perform the surgery. You’re talking about 30 or 50 people involved in the various steps, and every step is as important as the other ones.”
Tillery said he has tried to thank everyone involved in his successful surgery, but many did their part and moved on to another patient before he could get their names.
One of the many missions Tillery’s church takes part in is at the Angola State Penitentiary. As odd as it may seem, Tillery said, there was a contingent of inmates at Angola who were praying for the Ochsner nurses and surgeons as they prepared for the surgery.
“What’s amazing to me through this whole thing is the prisoners feel a connection to Ochsner in the sense that they not only prayed for me, but they prayed for the doctors and nurses and staff that took care of me through those procedures,” Tillery said. “They celebrated when they heard it was a success, and they still are celebrating.”
Above all else, Tillery said his goal is to celebrate the unique gift of both a heart and kidney, by the way he lives each day.
“The gift I received is huge, and you’ve got to be responsible in taking care of that gift,” he said. “That requires taking your meds, checking your blood pressure, checking your temperature, watching your weight, exercising, eating right – it’s just a huge responsibility. I hope to honor the donor by the way that I live.”
To read more about the impact organ donation can have on the lives of others or to register to become an organ donor, visit ochsner.org/savenine.