500th heart transplant patient celebrates milestone with gratitude

Carolyn Kimmel
October 11, 2018

HERSHEY, Pa. — Not a day goes by that David Wheeler doesn’t think about the fact that the heart beating in his chest isn’t the one he began life with 56 years ago.

A former self-described workaholic, the Williamsport resident sounds almost poetic as he describes a new outlook on life.

“I lie in bed every morning and hear the birds chirping, the wind blowing, the smell of grass being cut,” said Wheeler, a maintenance man at a local container company for 23 years. “I think people take life for granted. I know I did. I thank God for every day I wake up.”

Wheeler’s heart transplant, which took place on June 23, marks the 500th heart transplant since Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center began doing the transplants in 1984. It’s the only hospital between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia that performs heart transplant surgery.

“It’s a significant milestone for us,” said Dr. Behzad Soleimani, surgical director of heart transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute. “Our longevity speaks to the quality of the work we do. Our one-year survival rate is more than 90 percent, which is among the best in the nation.”

Renowned for its mechanical heart therapies, the Medical Center also has been at the forefront of finding new ways to improve outcomes for heart transplant patients, including less invasive techniques to detect transplant rejection at the molecular level.

“Our patients are very complex, and it takes the dedication of the whole team working together for the best outcomes,” said Dr. Omaima Ali, cardiologist at the Heart and Vascular Institute and part of the transplant team that also includes surgeons, nurse coordinators, nurse practitioners, social workers, a financial counselor and pharmacists, along with support staff.

Often patients are followed for years before needing heart transplantation, and they receive follow-up care for the rest of their lives.

“That’s something that’s not seen in other areas of cardiac surgery,” Soleimani. “The trust and the friendships that develop are pretty remarkable and very gratifying.”

“The staff becomes like family because you’re there so long,” said Tammy Wheeler, David’s wife. “The whole experience is just absolutely amazing.”

Learn more about David Wheeler and the Medical Center’s 500th heart transplant in this Penn State Medicine article.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 11, 2018