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Personality change after a heart transplant

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Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s heart transplant brought on jokes about whether the change of heart would affect his famously chilly demeanor. Does an individual’s personality change after a transplant?

A Woodinville man is qualified to answer that question. He celebrated his 50th birthday yesterday with a heart about half his age.

RandyRandy Small had a heart attack at the age of 29, and double-bypass surgery two years later.

As he approached 40, doctors implanted a stent to keep an artery open, an internal pacemaker/defibrillator to keep his heart beating correctly and a mechanical device to take over for the left ventricle, which was only pumping 11 percent of the blood his body needed.

University of Washington Medical Center doctors also put him on a waiting list for a heart transplant.

Hour by hour, minute by minute he was waiting to die. Or, he was waiting for someone else to die.

“I was waiting for three months on this left ventricular assist device. It was noisy, it was painful, it was invasive, intrusive and thank God I could have one,” says Small. “It kept me alive and allowed me to get stronger so that when that call came, I would be able to receive the heart, go through the surgery and go through it strong.”

He remembers getting the call.

“May 24, 2004 at 3:24 p.m. they said, ‘Randy we have a heart for you,'” says Small.

Who’s heart was it? Anyone would want to know.

At the time of his transplant he was told his heart was coming from a young Alaskan male who was very athletic and a swimmer. Later he learned that his donor was a young female. Kate Kuhns, who died from a brain aneurysm. She was 22.

Kate’s sudden passing left the family reeling with unanswered questions and overwhelming grief. At the time, Kate’s father Lary said he was “mad at everybody.”

“Those are times you go for a walk on the beach and just cry your eyes out. You want to understand and make sense of why something happened. I’m always thinking, There’s got to be a reason.’ Sometimes there just isn’t,” he told a Homer, Alaska reporter.

The families of organ donors often want to meet the recipients, which is entirely their choice, because they want to believe the person they love is still with them, in a way. Small has met, and bonded, with the Kuhns family.

“On the positive side, that means that person lives on and that’s how the Kuhns feel. Kate lives on. Kate’s legacy continues with me and the 11 other people who received organs and tissue from her,” says Small. “We want to think that our loved ones live on and their life had more meaning, especially if they pass way too soon. On the recipient’s side, I gotta admit, it’s a little creepy thinking about it.”

Creepy, he says, because it is “odd” to think that someone else might be controlling or influencing his actions and choices.

Small asked one of his best friends if his personality has changed since his heart transplant. She joked that he’s “always been a jerk and is still a jerk” though now a “more grateful jerk.”

“I live in a place of gratitude that few people ever reach. I’m grateful for today. I’m grateful for everything that happens, good and bad, because I’m here to experience it,” he says.

An appreciation for life is the most common change in a person after a heart transplant, but some doctors say they’ve seen more dramatic affects. Gary Schwartz, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, says he has seen more than 70 transplant patients who displayed “eerie similarities to the heart’s previous owner.”

A couple of examples are a professional dancer who received the heart of an 18-year-old man. After the surgery, she reported craving beer and KFC, just as the donor had. A 7-year-old girl experienced terrifying nightmares about being killed after receiving the heart of a girl who had been murdered.

Schwartz says that’s possible because of cellular memory. “Information and energy stored in the heart can be passed on to the recipient,” he says.

Small is skeptical, based on his own experience and through working Lifecenter Northwest, coming in contact with hundreds of organ transplant patients.

There are about 112,000 people in the U.S. on a waiting list for organs and 2,100 in the Northwest.

“Every organ donor is a hero. I’m just an ordinary guy. I have an ordinary life, but I have that ordinary life back because someone chose to do something extraordinary,” Small says. “I have the heart of a hero, and it’s not the one I was born with.”

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