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The Gift: Winona man's new heart gives new life

"I spent a year in the hospital. And to the best of my knowledge, everyone said 'this guy can do it,'" Driscoll said, referring to family, friends and medical professionals.

01 Tom Driscoll
Tom Driscoll plays with his dogs, Jasper, left, and Olive on Monday in the backyard of the home where he stays in Rochester. Driscoll received a new heart in October after years of issues.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Faced with the prospect that life with his "broken heart" was nearing an end, Tom Driscoll began downsizing his life.

Driscoll, CEO of a book publishing company, sold his bikes and skis, tools and gadgets, the things that had given life pleasure and meaning but that he couldn't use anymore. Bleeding and in pain, Driscoll couldn't lift a Skilsaw anymore.

"Toward the end, it wasn't that I felt, 'I need to give up,'" Driscoll said. "I felt I couldn't give anymore.'"

For the past five years, after suffering a catastrophic heart attack, Driscoll of Winona, had relied on a 15-pound mechanical device called a Left Ventrical Assist Device (LVAD) to keep his damaged heart pumping. It is the same device once used by Minnesota Twins Hall of Famer Rod Carew and former Vice President Dick Cheney, both heart-transplant recipients.

Days after his heart attack but before receiving the LVAD, Driscoll's heart stopped beating - a near-death experience that he said left him on the threshold of a "sensory" abyss before doctors were able to restart his heart.

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After LVAD surgery, recovery was excruciating, but slow and steady. And after a couple years, Discroll had regained enough strength and stamina to hike five miles along the Fillmore County back trails.

But his third year attached to the LVAD marked the start of a physical decline that worsened due to a freak accident. Driscoll had rolled in his sleep, pulling a quarter-inch of the drive line out of his abdomen that connected to the heart pump, leading to bleeding and infection that worsened over time.

In early October, Driscoll got a call from a Mayo Clinic cardiac doctor, urging him to drop everything and get to the hospital. He needed to be put on antibiotics immediately to deal with a runaway infection.

The infected area had become a 2 1/2- inch wound that almost reached to his back.

"You're circling the drain," one doctor told him. "The LVAD is no longer sustainable."

Driscoll appeared out of options.

Doctors couldn't put in a new LVAD because of the infection. And Driscoll had all but ruled out the option of a heart transplant after doctors told him, soon after his heart attack five years ago, that his weakened kidneys disqualified him for a heart. The news had "crushed" him, but he thought the matter settled.

"I had no idea where 'sustainable' would lead, but I knew it probably wasn't a good place — more of the same, weakness, daily dressing of a suppurating wound that frequently bled due to my blood thinners," Driscoll said. "I had bruises all over, and the smallest nick or scratch bled for hours."

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Proving to be quite a fighter

Then, out of the blue, a new option opened up: His doctor dangled the possibility of a heart transplant. The idea made Driscoll both hopeful and scared.

"It blew me away, and though more of the same wearied me, the thought of a (transplant) scared me with the possibility that it would never happen," Driscoll said.

Within a week, Driscoll passed his screenings, including the kidney test that he had flunked five years earlier, and was listed on the transplant waiting list. He was listed as a Status 2, considered to be in the most urgent need of a heart transplant.

Driscoll learned of a donor heart's availability within days of his listing. A group of LVAD coordinators at Mayo Clinic — "all proud professional women," Driscoll said — entered his room, each one holding pom poms made from paper strips. They sang a cheer, each one stepping forward and dropping to one knee with their arms over their head.

02 Tom Driscoll
Tom Driscoll Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, in the backyard of the home where he stays in Rochester. Driscoll received a new heart in October after years of issues.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

One factor that weighed in his favor for a transplant, Driscoll believes, was his attitude. Over the years, he learned the discipline of being a "patient patient," of behaving himself, of doing the medical things necessary to live and survive.

And through it all — the pain and the bleeding, the infections and operations —Driscoll had proved himself to be a fighter.

"I spent a year in the hospital. And to the best of my knowledge, everyone said 'this guy can do it,'" Driscoll said, referring to family, friends and medical professionals.

Throughout it all, Driscoll had resisted allowing his physical issues to dominate his life completely. As managing editor and CEO of Shipwreckt Books Publishing Company, a regional business he started in Lanesboro in 2013, Discroll had stayed busy. Publishing engaged and fulfilled him and distracted from the sickness and pain.

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Between just prior to his heart attack in 2016, through his time using an LVAD to right before his transplant, Driscoll published nearly 40 books.

Married by a pygmy prefect

Throughout much of his life, Driscoll has led a Renaissance Man-type lifestyle. He has been a journalist, itinerant poet and publisher, a member of the Rushford Economic Development Authority board, and a builder. He has always been physically active. In his 60s, he was biking 5,500 miles a year.

While serving in the Peace Corps in Gabon, a country along the Atlantic coast of Central Africa, Driscoll and his then-girlfriend, Beth Stanford, were married in a ceremony presided over a prefect, who was also a pygmy. The marriage took place in a polygamous society, which allows a man to have multiple wives.

When the pygmy asked Stanford how many women she was going to allow her husband to marry, she replied, "one."

"Everybody laughed," Driscoll said. "That was quite a party."

Shocked back to life

But heart issues ran in his family. Driscoll was 21 when his 56-year-old dad, whom he describes as his "great hero," died of a heart attack. His brothers and a sister have also battled heart attacks or cardiac issues.

The heart attack that had destroyed Driscoll's left ventricle pumps blood to the aorta, which distributes it to all parts of the body. Doctors at first thought that the problem could be handled with medication. They prepared Driscoll to go home.

But while in the hospital room, with a nurse at his elbow, Driscoll's heart stopped and he hit the floor. He coded for 10 minutes, until medical professionals were able to shock his heart back to life.

"When I woke up, it was like a TV show. I'm looking up and it was all these white-coated" nurses and doctors peering down at him, he said.

Driscoll calls his near-death experience a "pleasurable, sensual" moment triggered by the firing of a cascade of neurons in his brain. He said all of his senses were fully engaged, and he was aware of progressing through blackness toward an abyss.

"Somehow, I knew that on the other side of that threshold was a descent, an abyss and no further," he said. "And then I woke up and I kind of wrestled with a guy, because I was out of it."

Hovering at that "dark yet sensory precipice," Driscoll said he felt he gained valuable insight about the connection between life and death, making all that he had been through worth it. As a writer and an artist, it was, he said, a "bonus gift" that gives him comfort.

"I'm not a heaven-seeker, but I will settle for pushing up daisies," Driscoll said. But by the same token, "I don't want to die. Life is fun."

Credit to others

Driscoll's heart transplant took place in late October. The operation lasted about 12 hours. Driscoll recalls waking up in a Mayo intensive care unit and hearing someone saying "Congratulations, you have a new heart."

For the time being, Driscoll and Stanford rent a house in Rochester, where he is recovering. During an interview there, Driscoll said doesn't know who his donor is.

But he feels he has been given a gift. He feels that whoever the donor is was a robust young man between 18 and 30 years old. He considers himself at the beginning of a new transition — and profoundly grateful.

"It's a very unique, rare opportunity, thanks to a generous donor, a selfless person who (perhaps) checked a box on a driver's license," he said.

And through it all, Driscoll attributes his survival to one constant: His wife, Beth.

"Suffice it to say, I would not be here today — not with the quality of life and discipline I enjoy — without her," he said. "Her actions constantly show me how much I mean to her, just how much she loves me. And for that, I am humbled and very grateful."

Related Topics: PEOPLEWINONA AREAEXCLUSIVE
Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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