Most people feel lucky to get a second chance at life. Mark Frye, the University of Miami’s first heart transplant patient, is thankful that he also received a third.
Frye, 56, celebrated his 30th year with a transplanted heart on Tuesday at a conference hosted by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, whose doctors performed the surgeries in 1986 and 1999 that extended Frye’s life well beyond their expectations.
The odds were against Frye from the start.
The average life expectancy for patients who receive a heart transplant is just over nine years. And though his first heart transplant lasted 13 years, Frye is now going on 18 years with his second one.
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Despite his astonishing longevity, Frye said this week that he hardly thinks about life expectancy. But he admitted that the thought crosses his mind now and then — and he wondered if he could get lucky once again.
“When the years go by,” Frye said, “ you wonder how much longer, if you’re going to last, and will they do a third one?”
Usually, Frye said, it’s during anniversaries of his heart transplant that he thinks about how lucky he is to be alive. During one celebration, Frye said, he watched video footage of his first heart transplant and got a glimpse of just how easily everything could have gone wrong.
After doctors had brought the donor heart into the operating room, Frye said, “the heart wasn’t pumping.” Watching the video, he said, “I got pretty teary-eyed about that. But within a couple of minutes, they had it working again. ... But they were basically working on a dead person.”
Laurie Futterman, a nurse and transplant coordinator during Frye’s first surgery, said Frye’s trust in a medical team that had never performed such a procedure inspired them to do their best.
“He just had all the faith in us and we did everything,” Futterman said. “He was our baby. And we learned together. That was our thing, our special bond. We learned as we went along.”
At age 26, Frye suffered from idiopathic cardiomyopathy, a common cause of heart failure. Doctors gave him about six months to live.
After surgeons opened his chest on an operating room table at Jackson Memorial Hospital in 1986 for the first heart transplant, Frye said they told him he would not have lived more than three weeks without the surgery.
Heart transplantation was relatively new at the time, and the procedure had never been performed by UM doctors, said Eduardo De Marchena, an interventional cardiologist with the University of Miami Health System, or UHealth, who was a member of the team that performed the first heart transplant on Frye.
De Marchena said he first was struck by Frye’s youth. “I was 32 years old,” De Marchena said. “He was 26.”
But after meeting Frye, De Marchena said, he became impressed with the patient’s willingness to go through with the surgery. He considers Frye a trailblazer for giving the UM transplant team the opportunity to perform the surgery for the first time.
“It’s something like John Glenn in my eyes,” De Marchena said, “someone that’s willing to take the space shot and be willing to take a shot at a better life but with incredible risk. It was an unproven entity.”
Frye’s first heart did very well, De Marchena said. Then in the late 1990s, Frye began to develop heart failure once again. Doctors fitted him with a device to keep his blood circulating, and they opened his heart valves with stents, stabilizing Frye long enough to put him on a waiting list for a second transplant, De Marchena said.
Both surgeries were performed by Hooshang Bolooki, a pioneering doctor at UM who died in 2008. Doctors never expected Frye to survive so long. The five-year survival rate, De Marchena said, was about 50 percent, and the chances only worsened with time.
But Frye beat the odds both times, and De Marchena said there’s a reason for that.
“He’s a great patient,” De Marchena said. “He takes exactly all his medications. He takes care of himself, but on top of that there’s a mind-set there. There are some people that are just survivors. They want to live. They’re going to do whatever they have to do to live, and it’s something that goes beyond mind over matter.
“He’s a very humble man, but he’s a guy that loves life and he wanted to live.”
A previous version of this article stated that Mark Frye was Miami's first heart transplant patient. The first heart transplant in South Florida took place in 1969 at the former Miami Heart Institute.