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Transplant patient toughs it out

Chris Larson and his mom, Sally, held a photo of Larson and his tractor, showing the trophy he won in a tractor pull at the Pierce County Fair last year. The photo was presented to him for his 40th birthday.

HAGER CITY -- If, like a cat, Chris Larson has nine lives, those remaining can hardly be as medically challenging as the ones he's already lived.

This Thursday, Larson will mark the 25th anniversary of his heart transplant by visiting his physician for his annual check-up. Doctor visits are as natural for the Hager City resident as catching mice would be if he really was a cat.

But he'd much rather be at a tractor pull.

"I like to ride my tractor," the third heart transplant patient in the history of Minneapolis' Abbott Northwestern Hospital said Friday when asked what he does for fun. He soon produced a photo of himself with the Allis Chalmers, taken after he won a trophy in the pull at the Pierce County Fair last summer.

Life since the transplant has continued to be an uphill tug for the now-40-year-old. He told about being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 1996, requiring six chemotherapy treatments. They worked, but he still sees an oncologist annually.

"Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer the same day," he said of an irony.

His mother, Sally, admitted she was more concerned about his diagnosis, knowing his condition makes it harder to fight off illnesses. The treatment wasn't without some uncertainty, she said; the amount of chemo had to be adjusted at one point. Yet, both have overcome their bouts with cancer.

"In our family of six, five of us have had cancer," she said, indicating only daughter Susan has escaped it. Husband Jim, older son Mike and younger daughter Stacy are the others.

Then there was a complication with removing Larson's wisdom teeth in 2001, his mother said. The dental surgeon used a medication shown safe even for young children, but which affected this patient differently. It shut down his kidneys and he ended up having 11 dialysis treatments.

Last week, Larson was wearing a device on his right hand to stretch it. He said the hand curved due to the stroke he suffered before his transplant and stretching is expected to help that, though he'll have the contraption on for at least another month.

The biggest part of what he has endured is related to the stroke, his mom said. In the summer of 1986, the then-15-year-old was "dragging," Mrs. Larson said. The Larsons were living on their former farm in Esdaile and it was time for corn-picking, a chore with which the youth typically helped his dad.

"He didn't have the strength," she recalled.

One morning that October, Larson reported he wasn't feeling good, she said. A trip to a Red Wing clinic led to testing. A physician wanted an electrocardiogram to be done, but that meant having to bring in a machine from the Twin Cities, so it was put off for a day.

When the results became clear, the family was informed Larson was "really sick" and it was his heart, she said. Doctors at Minneapolis Children's Hospital were already waiting for him.

"You have to go there right now" was the directive. Along the way to the Cities, they were hit by another vehicle following a sudden stop, but fortunately it wasn't serious.

The two eventually arrived at the emergency room and the patient was found to be full of fluid because his heart wasn't working correctly, and his liver was enlarged, she said.

"(The doctors) told us he wouldn't have lasted the night," she said, referring to if they had not come when they did.

A week to 10 days later, Larson returned home.

At that point, he was meeting with a physician who wanted him to talk to the transplant team at Abbott Northwestern. It was early March of 1987 and they were testing to check his other organs were strong when he came down with pneumonia. Once he recovered, they discussed the possibility of an artificial heart.

Her son desperately wanted to go home, but that would mean being lower on the transplant list, she said. Nonetheless, he was ultimately sent home, only to return to the hospital when his veins collapsed and he suffered the stroke.

"They implanted the artificial heart overnight," Mrs. Larson said.

Larson spent 25 days in intensive care, experiencing fevers and nose bleeds. She said they stayed right there with him -- his dad until June and his mom all summer.

Then, one Sunday, their daughter Susan was informed the transplant team believed a real heart for him had been located, his mother said.

Back then, the recipient family wasn't told much about the donor, except the heart was coming from someone who was brain dead. They were allowed to write a thank-you letter, however, to be delivered independently.

The transplant took "all that night," Larson's mom remembers. He has little recollection of the operation.

In August, Larson was sent to the Sister Kenney Institute, his mom said. Next, it was home, where he underwent occupational, physical and speech therapy. Today, he has appointments every six weeks in Red Wing for lab tests, plus every six months, twice a year and his annual check-up.

Larson celebrated his 40th birthday last September with a party at Mike's Bay Town Bar and Grill in Bay City. It was an especially memorable milestone for a survivor who likes to kid about being a "cat" who's used up some of those "nine lives."

Bill Kirk

Bill Kirk was editor of the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth, from 1988 to February, 2015 and is now on staff as a reporter. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He previously worked in the media distribution department at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus and is past editor of The Tri-County News in Osseo, Wisconsin.

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