Expected to tick for five years, Perry man's new heart turns 20

Jun 4 2012 - 7:18am

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(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Jesse and Sharon Mason sit together at their home in Perry on Thursday. Jesse had a heart transplant 20 years ago and is now 75 years old.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Jesse Mason sits for a portrait outside his home in Perry on Thursday. Mason had a heart transplant 20 years ago and is now 75 years old.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Jesse and Sharon Mason sit together at their home in Perry on Thursday. Jesse had a heart transplant 20 years ago and is now 75 years old.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Jesse Mason sits for a portrait outside his home in Perry on Thursday. Mason had a heart transplant 20 years ago and is now 75 years old.

PERRY -- When Jesse Mason's doctors said he could expect to live five years with a transplanted heart, his family prepared to appreciate Mason's few remaining years.

Twenty years later, though, Mason is still alive and kicking and camping.

"Every year we go on a camping trip. We've done it forever, and every year we've told everybody, 'Make sure you're there. This might be the last time we see grandpa,' " said Vickie Neilson, Mason's daughter.

"We've had many different events through the years, and we always say, 'If he can just hang on for this event, or if he can just hang on until so and so gets married.' We've been holding our breath for the past 15 years."

Mason, 75, of Perry, continues to hang on. Since his heart transplant on June 11, 1992, he has seen the births of 14 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren. He participates in special events in their lives, including baby blessings, baptisms and weddings.

The statistics have never been in his favor. According to the American Heart Association, the five-year survival rate for heart transplant recipients is about 73.1 percent for males and 67.7 percent for females.

The longest survivor was a 73-year-old man from Michigan, who lived 24 years after surgery. Mason hopes to surpass his record.

"I feel really good," Mason said. "I keep busy and stress myself a little bit each day so I keep the heart muscle strong. I still mow my own lawn and sweep the sidewalk."

Mason was born with a weak heart and has had many problems through the years. Twice, he was hospitalized to replace a failing aortic valve.

In May 1992, after eight months on the heart transplant list, he became critically ill and was moved to the top of the list. One month later, he received his new heart from a young man who died in a motorcycle accident.

"On that day, a devastated family who was mourning the tragic loss of someone they loved chose to give the gift of life and donate their loved one's organs," Neilson said. "We will forever be thankful for their selfless acts of kindness."

A little more than a month later, Mason wrote a letter to the newspaper editor thanking the unknown family and their sacrifice on his behalf. Neilson still carries the letter in her wallet.

Mason's wife, Sharon, said because of scar tissue, her husband can no longer be tested to see whether his heart is in rejection. It's a continual guessing game, she said.

"Because of the anti-rejection medicine, his kidneys have suffered and he's on kidney dialysis at home," she said. "But his attitude has kept him going. In fact, he has been told that his attitude, appetite and exercise have kept him going."

Mason said the way his life has turned out has been a wonderful blessing.

"I plan for at least another eight to 10 years," he said. "If I were to (talk to) someone facing the same thing, I would say never give up -- never. Do everything you can to keep your body in as good shape as possible. I had a fear that if I didn't do everything possible, I wouldn't be around. I think that desire has kept me going."

The family is holding an open house to celebrate Mason's 20 years of success from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday at Perry Park, 2450 S. 900 West, in Perry. The public is invited to attend.

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