A new heart on the horizon

Created: December 26, 2019 04:41 AM

(ABC 6 News) An Austin man is grateful to be home for the holidays, after a multi-year wait for a heart transplant brought him across the country for a better shot at a perfect match.

Every year, Jeffrey McNiff heads north, traveling from Austin to the Boundary Waters for a week of adventure.
He never missed a year, even after surviving a heart attack at 39-years-old and losing about two-thirds of the function in his heart.  


"I kept doing everything I did before, but I would just do it at my own pace,” he said. "We'd get to a portage and I'd send the wife off and go, ‘well I'll get there when I get there.’"

Over time, his heart grew weaker. 
"Four and a half years ago heart failure started kicking in," he said.

He was placed on a waiting list for a transplant. 
"Your body is not getting the blood so you tire easily. It really slows you way down. I was to the point where I couldn't really do anything at all,” he said.

His trips to the wilderness were over, but life took him on another adventure. This time to Arizona. 

"A year ago in June I was referred to Arizona because they have a lot denser population down there and a lot higher number of organs available,” he said. 

That is compared to Mayo Clinic in Rochester. 

"As you can tell, we’re in the middle of a cornfield. We are the largest region by area, but not by population. Really what drives heart donors is a population,” said Mayo Clinic Cardiac Surgeon Dr. John Stulak. 

“At Mayo Clinic in Arizona they do draw from Southern California and the Phoenix/Scottsdale area is a couple million people,” he said. 
"We went down with the expectation of having a heart within the year,” said McNiff.

But he never got one. 

“After about a year and a half they told us that the organ allocation system had changed and I wouldn't be any better off there than in Austin,” he said.

The changes were intended to make it easier for smaller areas to have access to more organs. 

"It's now a 500 mile radius so it does bring some of the larger areas into play for us in terms of Chicago, St. Louis, etc. The changes have benefited us. We've seen our transplant numbers increase,” said Dr. Stulak. 

Still, heart organs typically go first to those most in need. 

"Heart transplants don't last forever. So we really want to make sure patients that are let’s just say stable with heart failure aren't getting an organ too early. So it's really prioritized to the more sick individuals,” said Dr. Stulak.

Comparatively, McNiff is relatively stable. 

"Realistically it could be many years before I get a heart,” he said. 

So in the meantime, he is living with a Left Ventricular Assist Device, or LVAD. 

"Which is a pump on my heart that bypasses the left ventricle. I got batteries and a computer and a line coming out of my abdomen to it,” he said.

The batteries have to be changed about twice a day. He plugs into a power source at night, and on long car trips, the car’s lighter socket.  

"When I take a shower I have to put it in a waterproof bag. Wife wraps me up in shrink-wrap. It's tough,” he said.

With all of these obstacles, he’s grateful to be facing them at home in Austin with his family. 

"All four of our kids and eight grand-kids are here,” he said.

And as the new year approaches, he remains hopeful that there’s a new heart and another adventure on the horizon. 

McNiff is one of more than 113,000 people waiting for a lifesaving organ. You can register to become an organ donor here. 

McNiff’s family has set up a GoFundMe page to help with medical expenses. Click here for more information. 

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