Tony Huesman, the world’s longest surviving single heart transplant recipient died at age 51 of cancer on Sunday evening, nearly 31 years after receiving a heart from an anonymous donor at a US hospital.

Huesman, who lived in Washington Township, Dayton, Ohio, died from melonoma, a form of skin cancer, his wife Carol told Dayton Daily News. She said her husband, who had been in and out of hospital all summer, had found it difficult to accept that he was going to die of cancer after he had lived so long with the transplanted heart.

At age 16, Huesman was diagnosed with the degenerative heart disease viral cardiomyopathy and by the time he was 20, his heart was worn out.

On 30 August 1978, he underwent a heart transplant at Stanford University Medical Center in California. The heart came from an anonymous donor.

According to Dayton Daily News, Huesman once said that anonymous donor was often in his thoughts, and it upset him that he could not thank the relatives. He told the newspaper that he was told the heart had come from an 18-year old man who had died in a motorcycle accident.

After the transplant, Huesman returned to Dayton and founded the Huesman Heart Foundation a charity that has raised thousands of dollars for heart healthy educational programs in Dayton area schools.

Together with friends, the Huesman’s, who were married in 1997, also sponsored an annual charity golf tournament to raise money for the charity. The 31st tournament took place this year.

Carol Huesman said the annual tournament will continue and will be dedicated to the memory of her husband.

In an article in the charity’s magazine last year, Huesman recalled his years leading up to the heart transplant.

He said he had been an active teenager, he had played baseball and football and went for a check up every year. Everything was fine until his junior year at high school when he got pneumonia.

“I just couldn’t kick it for several months,” said Huesman.

And then in the hospital they diagnosed viral cardiomyopathy: he was 16 years old.

He took 3 months off school to rest and take medication, and his heart appeared to return to normal. He went back to school, graduated in 1975 and was voted “Outstanding Senior Guy”. He went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and expected everything to be normal, he said.

“But things weren’t normal,” said Huesman, “I was tired all the time, and they diagnosed cardiomyopathy again”.

So he dropped out of college, stayed at home and rested and took new drugs. But his heart just kept enlarging.

He asked the doctors what the next step was and was devastated when they said there was nothing they could do and he had about 3 months to live.

He was shattered:

“I had so many hopes and dreams, and now my doctors were saying I was going to die,” said Huesman.

But this resourceful young man would not take no for an answer. He took it upon himself to find out as much as he could about his condition (no easy task in the pre-internet days).

That is how he came across the information that Stanford University was doing heart transplants.

He flew out there straight away, they evaluated and accepted him, and they were also straight with him: they told him he would probably die before a donor heart came forward.

However, two weeks later, he got a call that a heart was available, and he went back to California for the surgery.

“When they took out my old heart, the doctors said it was in such bad shape they couldn’t believe I was still alive,” said Huesman.

He was only 20 when he received his new heart, and the doctors told him it would last 5 to 10 years. It lasted nearly 31 years, setting a world record along the way.

Shortly afterward receiving his new heart, Huesman wrote these words:

“It doesn’t really matter how we die, when we die, or why we die.”

“What really matters though, is how we live in the hearts and souls of those we touch along the way,” he added.

— Huesman Heart Foundation

Source: Dayton Daily News, Huesman Heart Foundation.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD