In Dec. 9 IssueBy John ThompsonTimes Journal Reporter
When she had her heart transplant she was only given five years to live. That was in 1991, and Ruth Roy of Jabez was already 60 years old. As a tenacious fighter, beating the odds is something she's been doing for nearly half a century.
Only the second heart transplant operation to have taken place at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, Roy was also the first woman to receive the life saving operation. Her surgeon, Doctor Michael Sekela, had only recently learned the procedure.
The first successful heart transplant procedure took place in 1967, a year after Roy's former diagnosis of a heart murmur in 1965 was upgraded to a severe diagnosis of a leaking heart valve in 1966, the result of rheumatic fever she had contracted as a child.
"Eighty year ago you didn't go to the doctor like you do now," Roy said.
Doctors told her she would need the valve replaced again in five years. Not one to rush into things, it was 20 years before she would have the required surgery. As it turned out, the 20 years of limited mobility and conditions severe enough that she had to have surgery ended up only being the beginning of her health crisis. Though when it was over she would be better than ever.
"She's had more brushes with death than a cat," said her daughter and constant medical caretaker, Mary Lou Ard.
Before she finally settled into a healthy life, her heart would burst and she would have to have her heart shocked 17 times to revive her. This was in 1987, the year after her second heart valve replacement surgery, the first being in 1966, according to her and her daughter's recollection. But Roy was reluctant to be placed on a heart transplant waiting list.
"They wanted to but I wouldn't give up," said Roy. "Finally they told me, I was in intensive care, you stay here and look at these four walls or you get a transplant."
The final warning followed years of being in and out of the hospital. "I was in the hospital as much as I was at home for years," Roy said. "My husband would say that he would meet himself coming to the hospital as he was going home," she laughed.
In June of 1991, she learned a suitable donor heart had been found. It belonged to a 19 year old girl but the family is uncertain of the circumstances of the young Michigan lady’s death. A number of letters written by Ruth to the family expressing heartfelt emotions were never answered.
When the heart became available she was already in intensive care but she wasn't the only possible recipient who was a match for the heart at the hospital. The other patient, a male, was on a "heart machine, and Dr. Booth says why not give it to her because if you don't she will have to be put on it, and he's already on it Roy said.
It was only a few days later when another heart became available for the male patient.
Doctor David Booth is Roy's Cardiologist today and has been since the mid 1970's. Roy makes frequent visits to him for checkups and considers him like a member of the family.
Ruth's transplant turned out to be just in time.
"(Dr. Sekela) did tell Momma that if she hadn't got her heart she had maybe two weeks," said Mary Lou, "but he didn't tell her that until way after the fact."
Throughout her ordeal, she was accompanied by her husband Eugene Roy a veteran who received his health care through the Veteran's Administration.
As an amazing coincidence, Eugene Roy had his own heart problems and needed a heart transplant. After multiple heart attacks, he was informed that his condition was too dangerous to attempt the procedure.
After her procedure, Eugene Roy recognized the after her procedure, "(Her life) has changed mightily. She's an altogether different woman. She didn't have strength enough to do anything (before the transplant). We couldn't go anywhere. Now, we just go anywhere we want to." Eugene Roy would die in January, 2000, after 49 years of marriage. (Quote from Eugene Roy taken from a Times Journal article written in November, 1991).
At 19 years since her transplant, Roy has indeed beaten the odds. While she was expected to live for five years after the operation, today a heart transplant recipient has about a 75 percent chance of living at least five years. The longest survivor, who died last year, was 31 years old, and particularly athletic recipients have climbed some of the world's highest mountains after the surgery.
"I can wait on myself most of the time. Long as I can I want to. I don't want nobody to carry me everything or do everything for me," Roy said.
"She can still drive," said Mary Lou, "She doesn't drive, but she can drive."
The good nature and humor in the home was evident. From out of the kitchen, cooking lunch for the family, was Tommy Ard, Mary Lou's husband, "Nobody will ride with her," he joked, to everyone's amusement.
After the surgery Roy was able to do things she had not been able to do for years, like heavier house cleaning and importantly for her, raising a garden and playing with her grandchildren.
These days Ruth Roy is battling a lot of medical problems. A medicine which is vital to keep her body from rejecting her heart, even after 19 years, has begun to cause her skin cancer for which she has to take an additional strong medicine.
"They wanted to give her radiation," Mary Lou said, "but they couldn't recommend it because of her medical health and her age. She's had a lot of places taken off." The cancer is just above her temple and is about the diameter of a coffee cup. She's also on dialysis five times a day and has to take regular injections as well as having to keep on her blood pressure which will at times drop or spike.
Ruth says that a great strength for her has been the family of transplant survivors that had gathered every month for years after her surgery. Survivors from Kentucky and surrounding states would meet, along with the entire family, to offer mutual support and discuss issues both medical and of life; the introduction of transplant survivors being facilitated by the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA).
These days the number has dwindled and they meet twice a year, but the effect on her is obvious, "We would meet at Richmond or Lexington," Roy said, "It means a lot. They're like family. We could share problems and enjoy one another." Her affection is evident in the scrapbook she keeps of her transplant recipient friends, many of which have passed on.
"I never thought anything about how pretty the trees were in the fall until after that. You appreciate a lot more things than you did before," she said.
It didn't stop her from being a natural worrier.
She has three children; Mary Lou, Lowell Gene Roy and Donna Little; five grandchildren and five great grandchildren. She worked 18 years as the sole cook at the one room schoolhouse in Jabez, with a little cooking help from the between 20 and 60 children at a time she cooked for over the years. She and her late husband are well known all around the area of Faubush in which they lived as well as throughout Russell County.
On December 29 she will celebrate her 80th birthday, continuing to beat the odds.