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Recipients, donors celebrate life at annual picnic

Gary Melin was the third person ever to receive a heart transplant at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

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Gary Melin, left, a heart transplant recipient in 1988, speaks with Glen Kulkay, who received a heart transplant in 2017. The two were among the approximately 500 people attending the Gift of Life Transplant House annual patient and donor family picnic at Soldiers Field on Sunday.

Gary Melin was the third person ever to receive a heart transplant at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. His procedure came shortly after drugs to combat organ rejection had been developed. Those raised his chances of survival in the short term after the transplant.

The long term — the more than 30 years since his transplant — has been up to him.

On Sunday he was working the crowd at the annual Gift of Life Transplant House annual patient and donor family picnic at Soldiers Memorial Field. More than 500 people attended the event.

"I can have a heart-to-heart with you because I have a new one," he said. "If you laugh a lot, you live a lot longer."

In the 79-year-old’s chest beats a heart that is 47 years old. When the parents of a teenager made their decision in St. Paul in December 1988 to authorize the donation, Melin was laying at Mayo Clinic-Saint Marys Hospital, unable to move or speak.

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The transplant literally gave him a new chance at life.

Melin has been attending the annual transplant gathering for more than 20 years.

Each year, donor recipients, their families, donors and their families join doctors to reunite.

Melin said he wants to encourage people to support the caregivers who help patients.

He also wants to encourage other people about the life that’s still ahead of them, he said

Glen Kulkay, of Minneapolis, who received a heart transplant in 2017, said it was inspiring to see someone going strong more than three decades later.

"It just gives you that much more confidence — whether you need or not, I don’t know," he said. "I mean, I’ve already pretty much been through a miracle."

That change in life is one reason Julie Heimbach, a Mayo Clinic transplant surgeon, went into the transplant field.

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"You can see (patients) recover," she said. "We can bring them back to a completely normal life."

For the second year, Dwight Bacon, of Decorah, Iowa, attended the picnic.

Last year , he was just weeks removed from a liver transplant.

Bacon made a point to visit with Dr. Heimbach to let her know he was doing well.

Dr. Heimbach said the need for donors is still high, with more than 110,000 people on waiting lists.

When Melissa Lindvig, of Williston, N.D., heard a donor had come forward after reading a news article about her son, Ashton Hanson, 13, needing a kidney.

"I was in tears," Lindvig said. "We want to show people it’s a good cause.

People can sign up to be a donor at  donatelife.net.

Related Topics: MAYO CLINIC
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