UPMC recognized as pioneer in heart transplantation

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PITTSBURGH - Steve Wicks is always on the move.

The New Castle man just ran his third 5K, something he didn't think was possible just three years ago.

"A simple task of walking up the driveway became a mountain to climb," he said.

Wicks had congestive heart failure. For 12 years, he managed it with medicines, but when the avid hunter started getting more and more tired, he knew something wasn't right.

"In November of '09, I was running in and out of the woods with a climber on my back and going up and down trees and dragging deer," he said. "One month later, I found myself in a wheelchair on oxygen."

He was referred to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian, where a doctor gave him some sobering news: he needed a heart transplant or he would most likely die within a year.

Wicks went through all the screening and testing and was placed on the waiting list for a heart.

Three weeks later, just 30 minutes after his church held a prayer service for him, Wicks received the life-changing call.

"The voice on the other end said, 'This is UPMC. We have a heart for you. Can you make it down?'" he remembered.

He arrived that night, and within six hours, he was having the transplant procedure. It was his birthday.

Wicks is one of the 3,000 patients who have received a heart or lung transplant at UPMC, a milestone reached in only one other hospital in the country.

"It's a challenge. We see very difficult cases," said Dr. Christian Bermudez, director of the cardiothoracic surgery department. "This 3,000 is not just a number. It reflects a very vast experience that we feel on our shoulders."

UPMC has been a pioneer in transplantation. It completed the state's first heart transplant in 1968. The 980s saw the arrival of Dr. Thomas Starzl, his liver transplant program and the development of new anti-rejection therapies.

Wicks is also reaching his own goals with his new heart.

Just last month, he competed in his first Transplant Games of America, grabbing medals in tennis and bowling at the transplant games.

He is also celebrating family milestones.

"I would have missed things like taking my granddaughter fishing for the first time," he said. "You don't appreciate life until you know it can be snatched away, and I really appreciate that second chance in life."

Wicks does not know the donor of his heart but hopes to one day meet the donor's family to thank them.

To learn more about organ donations or to become a donor, click here.