January 31, 2022

Going strong, 30 years after her heart transplant

With support from Kaiser Permanente’s advanced cardiac care clinic, a Portland, Oregon, woman has dramatically exceeded her life expectancy.

Geraldine Keck, 91, and husband, Larry, continue to enjoy life together 30 years after her heart transplant and successful rehabilitation.

“I can still hear the sound of the helicopter,” said Alexia Keck, vividly recalling the day 30 years ago when her mother’s new heart arrived.

Only a few months prior, Geraldine Keck had been healthy and active. “She was a walker before walking was cool,” said Alexia. But after the 61-year-old contracted a virus, her heart became weakened and enlarged, a condition known as nonischemic heart failure.

Geraldine Keck had been a homemaker and a statistician for local football games, at one point becoming the first woman allowed to sit in the press box during a game. With 4 grown children, she had just become a grandmother. But now she could barely breathe as her heart deteriorated.

“The change was so dramatic, so fast,” said her daughter. “It got to the point where she couldn’t walk from the kitchen to the bedroom down the hall. She had to be pushed in a chair to go to the bathroom.”

Because Keck had gone through breast cancer and a double mastectomy, she wasn’t considered a good candidate for a heart transplant. But when her respiratory function dropped to 1% of normal, there was no other choice. Amazingly, within 24 hours a new heart had been located and was on its way to her in the hospital.

It got to the point where she couldn’t walk from the kitchen to the bedroom down the hall. She had to be pushed in a chair to go to the bathroom.

Caring for her new heart

Although the surgery did not take place at Kaiser Permanente, much of Keck’s care since has been provided by the advanced heart failure program at Kaiser Permanente Sunnyside Medical Center in Oregon.

“We have a wonderfully integrated program,” said Tim Jacobson, MD, chief of cardiology at Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon. “We have physicians with advanced heart failure board certification, surgeons, an internist, a social worker, dedicated medical assistants, and specialized nurse coordinators. At weekly team meetings, we discuss each patient in our clinic.”

That comprehensive approach is essential for transplant recipients, who often have complications and are at high risk for other illnesses because of the immunosuppressants required to prevent their bodies from rejecting the transplanted organ.

In addition to cardiac care such as electrocardiograms, angiograms, and heart biopsies, the team oversees any care members need elsewhere within Kaiser Permanente. “Even when patients are dealing with unrelated issues or illnesses such as cancer or an infection, all decisions about their care must consider their unique needs as transplant recipients,” said Dr. Jacobson.

Living well and exceeding all expectations

At the time of her surgery, Geraldine Keck was sent home with a pamphlet that said she could expect to live another 5 years. Even today, the life expectancy for a heart transplant recipient is only 12 to 13 years. So the years she has enjoyed since are nothing short of extraordinary.

Those close to her know she’ll continue to take good care of herself and her husband of more than 70 years, Larry.

"She clearly has shown that she’s a survivor, doing so well for so many years,” said Dr. Jacobson. “She’s always up to the challenges that might face her.”

Learn more about cardiac care at Kaiser Permanente.