BOUNTIFUL -- Mary Rizzuto has cheated death more than once in her 56 years.
When she was a young girl living in Wyoming, she survived a severe bout of rheumatic fever that damaged her heart valves. At the age of 23 she had her first surgery to replace one of the damaged valves. When that valve began to fail, another surgery to replace it nearly killed her.
She was sent to a hospital in Chicago for surgery on her lungs, a complication that resulted from heart valve surgery. Doctors there told her that her heart was so badly damaged they didn't think she would survive even a heart transplant, so they sent her back home.
Fortunately, the University of Utah Hospital had more faith in Rizzuto. In 1990, at the age of 35, her heart was replaced with that of a 47-year-old man from California who died from a brain aneurysm.
Twenty-one years later, Rizzuto, now a Bountiful resident, is among the longest-surviving heart transplant recipients in Utah.
"It was very unusual for a 35-year-old to get a 47-year-old heart," she said. "But he was my size and blood type. At the time, I was on a machine that was assisting me with life. I had been moved to the top of the waiting list because my condition was so severe."
The surgery was a success.
Rizzuto, her husband and their two daughters decided to stay in Utah, so they moved their belongings to Bountiful and went on with life as usual.
Her story doesn't end there, however. In 2006, her kidneys began failing because of the strain they were under from medication she was taking. That's when her 24-year-old daughter Angie decided to donate one of her kidneys to her mother.
Today, Rizzuto is healthy and more active than most teenagers. She volunteers for Intermountain Donor Services, is an avid quilter, helps train and care for her daughter's two puppies and wakes up at 7:15 a.m. three times a week and heads over to Lakeview Hospital, where she participates in the Lifestyle Management Program. Not only does she participate in the program, but staff members say she motivates other patients.
"Mary is one of a kind. She's a miracle, a friend, and she looks after those in the gym that may not be too sure of themselves," said Tawnya Zeidler, cardiac rehabilitation coordinator at Lakeview Hospital. "Mary is my first experience with a heart transplant patient, so I had to learn a lot from her. She is honest about her trials but so gracious for all those around her that have given her support and love."
The Lifestyle Management Program was started by Zeidler 12 years ago for patients who had progressed from the cardiac rehabilitation program but needed to continue exercising for their heart health. The goal of the program is to educate patients to decrease their cardiovascular risk factors for heart disease through exercise, nutritional counseling, stress management, smoking cessation, diabetes and blood sugar management and psychological and emotional support.
"I am so glad I found this program," Rizzuto said. "I had been going to rehab but it was up by the zoo. To travel there from Bountiful just didn't keep me motivated. When I found out I had coronary artery disease, I decided I needed to get back to cardiac rehab. I was surprised there was a place so close to my home."
Rizzuto credits her longevity as a transplant recipient to the love and support of her family and the Lifestyle Management Program at the hospital. She said every day is a blessing. She also said she likes to encourage people to say yes to organ donation.
"If it weren't for the kindness of the people who donated to me, I wouldn't be here today," she said. "Organ donation is very important. It's sad to lose a loved one, but it's also a blessing that something good can come from a loss.
"I hope that I can be an inspiration to people when they are deciding whether or not to be an organ donor. Why not say yes? You can't take it with you anyway."