Heart to Heart

Brent Allen returned to driving a truck following a heart transplant in 2001.

Brent Allen was born with what his mother simply calls “heart problems.” When he was a grown man, working as a trucker, they would nearly kill him.

“I had my first open heart surgery at six months, the second at 6 years and the third when I was 11 or 12,” says Brent, who is now 29.

He also had a pacemaker installed in his chest in 1986 to keep his heart beating regularly. But no problem could keep Brent from his lifelong dream.

“Since third grade, all he’s wanted to do is truck,” his mother Pam Allen says.

Brent began trucking after high school in 1993. He went out on his own in 1998, hauling grain and milk during the winter and working at a construction company in Edelstein, Ill., over the summer. But in the fall of 2000, Brent knew something was wrong.

“I was having trouble catching my breath. I was tired all the time, and sick,” he recalls. “I thought I had the flu, so I went to the doctor. I found out my heart was getting larger and pressing on my lungs.”

Brent was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a crippling condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to the body’s other organs. His doctor gave him medication, but it worked only briefly. In the spring of 2001, Brent was placed on a transplant list. But he continued to drive.

“I was pretty tired at the end of the day, but I just kept at it,” he says. It would have been hard to find somebody to drive my truck, and then I’d have to pay them.”

Many people wait years for a matching donor. Some never find one. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, about 63 people receive an organ transplant each day, but another 16 people on the waiting list die because not enough organs are available.

But because of his relatively rare blood type, B positive, Brent had a new heart within five months. He was sitting at a wedding reception when he got the call. He rushed to the hospital and had a new heart the next morning. He owes his new life to a 22-year-old girl whose family chose to donate her organs.

Nearly every organ of the body can be donated. A heart, kidney, liver, lung, pancreas, intestine, cornea or even skin can be transplanted. Bone marrow can be donated from living donors. Mothers can even donate the umbilical cord blood from their babies.

While new organs can become the only way to save a person’s life, they do not guarantee complete health. Now that he’s back to driving, Brent must take eight pills a day to keep his body from rejecting his new heart.

“I take two different pills for rejection. I also take a blood pressure pill once a day. I take an aspirin every day and some other stuff to fight infections,” he says. “I’ll be on some kind of meds for the rest of my life.”

While Brent’s insurance company covered about 85 percent of his bills, what was left over was “still a pretty good chunk of change.” And his insurance company is no longer paying as much as it used to.

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the estimated first year charges for a heart transplant are more than $200,000. Annual follow-up charges are $15,000.

Brent’s community held a benefit to help him with his bills. His construction job co-workers chose to give him their pay from a day’s work.

“He was just speechless,” Brent’s mother said. “Not too many people would do that.”
Not too many people donate their organs, either. Today, there are more than 80,000 people waiting on some type of organ transplant.

Making the decision to donate organs may be done by signing an organ donor card or driver’s license. However, a family member should be notified, as they will have the final decision-making authority.

“I’d never even thought to sign the back of my license,” Brent says. “A lot of people don’t think about it. I’ve signed it now, though. I’ll do anything to spread the word.”