Senate Majority Leader Gets Double Organ Transplant

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Utah State Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund is used to being in the news during the legislative session. But on the last day of the session in 2014, he made it onto the front page for something other than passing legislation. That night, Okerlund suffered a ‘medical event’ while conducting a meeting—his heart decided to stop. The truth was, his heart had been giving out for a while. He knew there were serious problems but didn’t necessarily want to accept the extent of his heart’s damage.

Thanks to the fast work of a few legislative colleagues who happened to be doctors and EMTs, he was resuscitated and admitted for additional tests. His cardiologist confirmed what Ralph and his wife Cindi had feared—because of several past heart attacks, the damage was extensive.

“My physician told me that my next heart attack would be my last,” Okerlund recalls. Although heart issues run in the family, the news was still devastating.

The Senator was referred to University of Utah Health to participate in the IX Cell DCM cell therapy study — a clinical trial for a stem cell based-heart therapy. The new therapy used stem cells harvested from a patient's bone marrow. After eliminating the weak cells, the strong cells are injected back into the patient, supercharging the patient’s heart.

While the new heart therapy wasn’t a permanent solution, it gave the Senator a few good years — as promised — but even then, he and Cindi knew someday down the line he would need a new heart. That day came in 2017.

Because Okerlund’s heart failure had also severely affected his kidney function, he needed combined a heart and kidney transplant – potentially increasing his time on the waiting list.

In advanced stages of heart failure, like Okerlund’s, the heart fails to pump enough blood supply to meet the demands of the body and often requires an artificial heart pump called a left ventricular assist device (LVAD).  Okerlund worked with the heart transplantation team at University of Utah Health to receive an LVAD as a bridge to transplant. The LVAD helped him make the final push until he was able to receive the double organ transplant.

Once the donated organs were secured, the transplant team, led by Josef Stehlik, MD,  had to work smart, and they had to work fast. Although the wait on the transplant list felt endless, once ‘the call’ came,  things moved at lightning speed. Okerlund received his new heart on a Thursday afternoon, and his new kidney later that evening.

“One morning we got the call,” he said. “And within 18 hours or so I had a new heart and a new kidney.”

After 15 months of having a machine surgically pump his blood for him, Okerlund awoke after surgery witha new heart, a new kidney, and a new lease on life.  With his family by his side, Okerlund spent two weeks in the ICU post-surgery and two more weeks on the heart care floor and in-patient rehab. He was recently discharged and is now happy at home, adjusting to his ‘new normal.’ 

While the risk of rejection is on the Senator’s mind, it is not his main concern. “The future looks a little brighter,” Okerlund said as he not only focuses on his own recovery, but works to raise awareness and promote knowledge of the organ transplant program at University of Utah Health.

This experience has led to a shift in the Senator’s priorities. He plans to slow down – and is focusing on spending more time fishing, enjoying life, and keeping up with his grandkids

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