Home » Heart transplant at the age of 48: “It was never a foreign heart to me!”

Heart transplant at the age of 48: “It was never a foreign heart to me!”

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Heart transplant at the age of 48: “It was never a foreign heart to me!”

Commuting hundreds of kilometers between home and work, countless appointments and business trips – Rolf Jaksties lived in the fast lane for many years. As the managing director of a company, his schedule was full to the brim. Responsibility, pressure and the ambition to succeed are huge. His guilty conscience towards his wife and two small children, for whom he hardly had any time, weighed just as heavily on him.

When the doctors diagnosed him with high blood pressure, he was only in his early 30s. Far too young for this dangerous disease, which is considered a “silent killer” and can lead to organ damage, heart attacks and strokes in the long term.

Health crash after flu – doctors diagnose heart failure

“I felt unwell, suffered from dizziness and just wanted some medication so that I could cope with my everyday life again,” Jaksties told FOCUS online. The doctors then prescribed him antihypertensive medication, which actually helped. He took it for many years. However, they only helped to lower the upper systolic value. The lower diastolic value remained dangerously high at over 100 mmHg. “A doctor told me that this needed to be investigated, but I didn’t take it seriously,” Jaksties continues.

A few years later, a health crash followed from which Jaksties never recovered. Despite having the flu, he flew abroad for a business meeting. After he returned nothing worked. He suffered from shortness of breath and felt so weak that he could hardly stand up. The viruses had attacked his heart – a not uncommon result of a spread flu. But it got even worse: “The doctors diagnosed me with heart failure.”

Weakness and shortness of breath during physical exertion – the symptoms

A diagnosis that the then 45-year-old did not take seriously enough. “I was glad that it wasn’t a heart attack, which the doctors had initially suspected.” Jaksties did not want to accept that heart failure is a progressive disease in which the heart’s pumping capacity decreases and the organs are no longer adequately supplied with blood and oxygen. As is the sad fact that many of those affected die within a few years of diagnosis.

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Jaksties’ insufficiency was already well advanced: he suffered from massive symptoms such as physical weakness, shortness of breath when walking and climbing stairs and the fear of suffocation. The weak heart causes, among other things, water retention in the lungs, which makes breathing even more difficult. Fainting attacks also occurred later.

Drug therapy no longer works

After a longer hospital stay and the right medication, Jaksties initially started to feel better again. In any case, it was so much better that he went back to work. But that didn’t go well for long. The hospital stays became more and more frequent and longer in order to stabilize his weak heart and body.

Two years after his diagnosis, he finally had to give up his job because of his heart disease. “I simply could no longer keep up with the obligations and appointments.” A heavy blow. Also financially. “We had to sell our home at a loss and move to my wife’s hometown to make ends meet,” he says.

Even though the elimination of professional stress initially brought an improvement in health, after two years there was another low point. “At some point the drug therapy stopped working,” he says. “The doctors told me in March 2003 that there was nothing more they could do for me and I needed a donor heart.”

Organs on the verge of failure – artificial heart stabilizes condition

A helicopter took the then 48-year-old to the NRW Heart Center in Bad Oeynhausen on the same day, where he was immediately put on the urgent list for organ donation. He wouldn’t have survived a taxi ride at that point – he could barely breathe. Doctors had to put him into an artificial coma because his organs were threatening to fail.

Only with an artificial heart, an electrically powered external cardiovascular pump, could he slowly be stabilized again. “I was so weak and had to learn to walk again because of the weak muscles,” he describes the difficult time after the coma in the heart center.

A few weeks later, a donor heart suddenly arrived out of the blue. An absolute stroke of luck. But even before Jaksties was pushed into the operating room, bitter disappointment came: “The heart wasn’t suitable for me,” is how he describes this dramatic situation. Jaksties was devastated. “My only straw back then were my children, who were still small and needed me,” he says about this difficult time.

Successful transplant in July 2003

Getting a suitable donor heart can take months or years. “Many patients die while waiting,” says Jaksties. But it was like a miracle: in July 2003, an organ suddenly became available again. “This time it was suitable and the transplant was successful,” says Jaksties. After just four weeks, he was allowed to go home to his family, whom he could hardly see during his four-month stay in the heart center. Because the clinic was 500 kilometers away from where he lived.

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But it didn’t take long until the first problems arose. Approximately six weeks after the transplant, a rejection reaction occurred. “I felt uncomfortable and had water retention in my legs.” A clear sign that something was wrong. At the transplant clinic, he immediately received cortisone infusions and changed medication with immunosuppressants that prevented the body from attacking the new organ.

“It was all very scary for me, but routine for the doctors,” says Jaksties. A rejection reaction in the body after a transplant is completely normal. Therefore, transplant recipients must first be closely monitored. After about a year and countless visits to the doctor and clinic, things were finally looking up for the father of the family. “From the doctor’s perspective, my condition was stable and I was slowly getting back on track.”

Lifelong use of medication to prevent rejection

At that time, doctors’ predictions for survival with a donor heart were around six years. Jaksties has now been living with it for almost 21 years and is doing well. “Life is not the same as before and of course there are a number of side effects from the medication,” he says. After a transplant, those affected must take cortisone and immunosuppressants for life. Due to the downregulated immune system, an infection, no matter how harmless, can quickly become life-threatening. “It’s better to go to the doctor more often or go to the hospital as a precaution so that nothing happens,” he says.

Volunteering at the German Heart Foundation and founding a self-help group

Since 2005, Jaksties has been a volunteer representative of the German Heart Foundation to educate people in his region about heart health. A year later he also founded a support group for heart patients. “That gives me a lot of strength,” he says. After his transplant, returning to work was no longer an option.

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What is particularly important to Jaksties is that the number of organ transplants, which has been declining for years, is increasing again. In his opinion, a lack of willingness to donate is not the reason for this: “My impression is that we have a lot of people in Germany who are willing to donate.” The problem is rather a structural one: “Many clinics can handle this complex effort with relatives “We don’t talk about removing organs and quickly passing them on to transplant clinics – either because of a lack of staff or because of financial pressure.”

Objection to organ removal in Germany is overdue

Jaksties therefore appeals to politicians to create better conditions for organ removal. “This also includes, for example, the introduction of the opt-out solution, as has long been common practice in other European countries such as Austria and Spain.” Anyone who does not object during their lifetime automatically becomes an organ donor after their death – unless close relatives reject this.

It was only in December 2023 that the Federal Council, at the initiative of some federal states, agreed to introduce this solution and called on the federal government to include it in the Transplantation Act. “Many people could still be alive if our system finally worked better and the contradiction solution applied,” Jaksties is convinced.

He answers questions about whether he doesn’t feel uncomfortable with a foreign heart in his body: “It was never a foreign heart for me,” says the now almost 69-year-old. “It is a heart that was donated by a good person – I am eternally grateful for that.”

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