Celebration for Central Texas’ longest-living heart transplant survivor

Every Aug. 30 on the birth date they share, Twain Schieffer of Austin talks to the man he and his family call a “miracle worker.”

Schieffer says Dr. John “Chip” Oswalt saved his life with a heart transplant 25 years ago, and now Schieffer is the longest-living heart recipient in a 19-county Central Texas region.

“I thank the Lord for having these 25 years,” Schieffer, 81, said in an interview Friday at a celebration for him at Seton Medical Center Austin. “It’s meant a whole lot of living.”

In the past quarter of a century, Schieffer has traveled, held a new grandchild and doted on four great-grandchildren. He says the time has also deepened his relationship with his 80-year-old wife, Latrelle, to whom he’s been married for 63 years.

The couple joined family, friends and health care workers to share a yellow sheet cake at Seton and mark the day before Schieffer’s other “birthday,” May 25, when in 1988 he got a new heart. The donor was a 16-year-old Illinois boy killed in a car wreck.

On Friday, Schieffer carried a framed photograph of the teen, culled from a newspaper archive in the Belleville community where the boy had lived. Schieffer normally keeps the picture on top of his TV, beside a photograph of his son, Mark Twain, who died in a car wreck in 1981.

Oswalt credited his patient’s longevity with a willingness to quit smoking and follow doctors’ orders.

In addition, “we’re blessed with the team that was formed” to do transplants at Seton, the lone heart transplant center in Austin, Oswalt said. That team kept Schieffer going, said Oswalt, who became the program’s first transplant surgeon 27 years ago.

About half of all heart transplant patients are alive 10 years later, according to Columbia University Medical Center. Today, 26 people in Central and South Texas are awaiting a heart transplant, said Michelle Segovia, a spokeswoman for the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance and a well-wisher at Schieffer’s party. They are among 429 statewide and 3,522 nationally, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Schieffer was 56 and had been a manager at Kerrville Bus Co. when he became the 14th of 343 Seton patients to receive a heart transplant. He had suffered his first heart attack at age 45, had several bypass operations and was out of options to treat his failing heart.

When the family was approached about a transplant, “we thought it was science fiction,” said one of his two daughters, Shelley Bockhorn, 62, of Austin.

“I was not sure he would follow the rules,” she added. “He used to be pretty grumpy and … would say, ‘Just let me die.’ ”

But when he was told he had 48 hours left to live, he wanted a second chance. The new heart arrived within 32 hours, Latrelle said.

“He was a great patient,” said Oswalt, now 66. “Very courageous.”

Afterward, Schieffer “turned his life around,” Bockhorn said. “He was more positive and happy to be alive.” He volunteered to mentor other transplant patients, said Bockhorn and her sister, KayLee Cox, 59, of Austin.

“He’s our hero,” said Lemuel Bradshaw, who had a heart transplant 14 years ago. Bradshaw, who is now 43 and works with families donating a loved one’s tissues at the Tissue Center of Central Texas, has become friends with Schieffer and was at Friday’s celebration.

“I’m looking forward to this party for myself,” said Bradshaw, who has three children and five grandchildren.

Schieffer’s cardiologist, Dr. David Morris, told the gathering that his patient is “a crusty guy on the outside and a soft guy on the inside” who has “given so much back and has been a tremendous ambassador for the program.”

Come Aug. 30, Schieffer expects to thank Oswalt, once again, for the gift of another new year.

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