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Transplant trailblazer

Tim Nichols took in the world with a sense of the wonder of it all.

He would rhapsodize about raspberries and wonder aloud why God made them taste so good. On family trips, he would pull off the side of the road and gaze into the night sky, inviting his wife, Mary, and three daughters to marvel at the heavens. He explored his surroundings with a sense of adventure and discovery.

That sense of wonder extended to the medical care he received at Mayo Clinic for a heart condition that, at a different time and in a different place, would have ended his life within a year of his diagnosis. In 1988, Nichols became the first recipient of a heart transplant under a revived Mayo program, becoming a medical celebrity and permanently linking his name to Mayo.

"He was a trailblazer," said Dr. Brooks Edwards, director of Mayo's transplant center and a doctor who joined the hospital's transplant team shortly after Nichols received his transplant. "He was quite a guy. He has left a legacy."

Nichols died Jan. 14, nearly a month after undergoing valve replacement surgery for his heart. Nichols received a second heart and kidney transplant in 1999 at the University of Minnesota.


At the time of his Mayo transplant in 1988, heart transplant surgery was still in its infancy. The odds on outcomes and life expectancy were far less certain than they are today. At the time, only a quarter of heart transplant recipients were expected to live 10 years after their surgery.

Nichols acknowledged in one of the several stories written about him that he lived with a deeper sense of his own mortality.

"When this happened, I hoped for maybe five years," he said. "Then it was 10. Now, I'm thinking 20 or 30."

He lived to be 51, more than two decades after his first transplant, old enough to open and operate a book store called "Christian Inspirations" at the Galleria Mall for a decade, to see his three daughters grow into adulthood, to bear witness to his Christian faith and to explore the world with the same sense of wonderment that defined his life.

Nichols often wondered what larger purpose his second lease on life was meant to serve, friends and family say. Sometimes he might talk about a person he met at the store and whether his life had been extended so that he might help that person.

"We talked about that occasionally," said Gary Melin, a friend and a fellow heart transplant recipient. "Because of the unique position that he found himself in, he could relate to people who were hurting physically, emotionally and spiritually."

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