HOUSTON -- Randy Creech has two framed photos on top of his home office desk in Humble. One picture is of him with his seven grandsons. The other is a smaller photo of a 19-year-old man he never even met.
His name is Aaron Stith. Creech keeps the photograph because, for the last 22 years, Stith’s heart has been keeping him alive.
“He did something really good for me,” said Creech. "I sort of feel it's my responsibility, you know, to take care of that gift. And Aaron's face there always reminds me of how special this is."
Creech was in his 40s when he developed congestive heart failure. Doctors gave him less than a year to live unless he could get a heart transplant. Stith died in a single-car accident in Oklahoma. His family made the difficult decision to donate his organs. Creech received the heart transplant when he was 43 years old.
"You know it's just when God decides that it's time for you to give you that second chance,” said Creech.
God, and a man named O.H. “Bud” Frazier.
"I've done the bulk of them that have been done here and we've done 1,200-and-something now,” said Frazier, the chief of Cardiopulmonary Transplantation at the Texas Heart Institute.
Frazier has performed more heart transplants than any other surgeon in the world.
Creech, now 65 years old, is one of his longest living survivors.
"We've come a long way,” said Frazier. “I wish we'd come farther. But I'm happy we've done as well as we have.”
This month THI is celebrating how far it has come in its first 30 years.
Dr. Christian Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967 in South Africa. Dr. Denton Cooley, the founder of the Texas Heart Institute, performed the first successful U.S. heart transplant the next year.
And in 1969 he became the first heart surgeon to implant an artificial heart in a man.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that anti-rejection medication made heart transplants successful enough to become an accepted procedure. The Texas Heart Institute’s transplant program began in 1982. Frazier performed the program’s first heart transplant and has since been involved in nearly 1,200 more.
The institute’s own small museum displays the first heart-lung machine that Cooley pieced together out of hardware store parts, including a coffee machine and steel wool. But 30 years worth of artificial hearts and heart pump assist devices are on display too. Devices that allow patients to go home with a battery powered backpack running their heart pump while they wait for a transplant.
Frazier has also been a leading pioneer in the use of LVAD or Left Ventricular Assist Devices. He installed the Texas Heart Institute’s first total artificial heart, the first LVAD, and its second total artificial heart.
"The pumps that are widely used today all started right upstairs in my office. I am pleased with that,” said Frazier who says that avoiding a heart transplant is part of the focus now.
Doctors at THI regularly install heart pumps that ease the burden on the heart and allow it to heal on its own.
"I've had a number of patients who I've been able to get the heart to recover so that they didn't need to have a heart transplant, and they don't have a pump. And I think that will be the main goal in the future," he said. "I think that if I had to predict (the future) it nearly has to be our goal."
That goal is motivated by the statistics that have not changed much in the last 30 years. At any given moment there are approximately 3,000 people in the United States waiting for a live-saving heart transplant. But only about 2,000 donor hearts are available each year.
"You think of the sacrifices that many of these patients have made and gone through,” Frazier said of the patients who have died waiting. “And and it sort of obliges you to continue trying to make it better."
"But you have to reach beyond the sunset and continue to try to improve it,” he said.
Creech has had 22 extra years of sunsets: a chance to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding and a chance to raise seven grandchildren.
"Every day is a gift all over again,” said Creech.
And he has also had the chance to become close friends with the parents of Stith, the ones who gave him their son's heart. They exchange cards and gifts annually. And one of Creech’s grandsons has “Aaron” as his middle name.
"A great deal of sadness,” Creech admitted of the bond he will always share with the Stith family. “It's because you know for you to live that some family somewhere has lost someone they loved.“
"I've just been blessed with an incredible, incredible gift," he added.
That is something that Houston heart surgeons at the Texas Heart Institute promise to keep searching in the next 30 years for even better ways to give.