Still 'pumped' up

Mike Blake has two birthday parties each year. One, in January, is the conventional one. The other, known to his family as the half-birthday, is celebrated on the anniversary of his heart transplant. Monday was his 16th half-birthday. Daughter Br...

Mike Blake
UND music professor Mike Blake. 58. conducts a percussion class last week 16 years after recieving a heart transplant. When Blake got his new heart in 1994 a 10-year survival was considered rare. Herald photo by John Stennes.

Mike Blake has two birthday parties each year.

One, in January, is the conventional one. The other, known to his family as the half-birthday, is celebrated on the anniversary of his heart transplant. Monday was his 16th half-birthday.

Daughter Brittney, a second-grader in 1994 and a 23-year-old now, wrote in his half-birthday card:

"We can't believe we've had you for an additional 16 years. I couldn't imagine elementary, middle and high school, or moving to (California), or college, or graduation, or getting into law school, or getting engaged, without you."

Indeed, the new heart has allowed the 58-year-old UND music professor to watch Brittney and son Drew reach their 20s.


"I'm very fortunate," Mike said. "Very fortunate. If you're doing well after 16 years, you're very fortunate."

Beat the odds

If transplanted hearts carried a warranty, his would have expired. Although the five-year survival rate is now about 70 percent, the procedure wasn't nearly as successful 16 years ago. Back then, a 10-year survival was considered rare.

Mike shared a critical care unit in Rochester, Minn., with three other Mayo Clinic transplant patients. None are still living.

Mike's heart is not only still ticking, but ticking strongly. At his last checkup in August, cardiologists used the word "pristine" to describe it.

Tests showed a problem with his kidneys. The prescription? Drink more water. Yes, the deterioration in his health in the past year is so slight that it can be handled with tap water.

The Blakes never dared to anticipate such success. They still don't. Every year, they return to Mayo, expecting to learn of some setback. Every year, they walk out on a cloud.

"I remember when one of the transplant doctors told Mike that he isn't getting a brand new tire; he was getting a used tire with complications," said his wife, Ginny. "But it's like Mike got a new tire and 16 years later, it's still new."


Born with defect

Mike was born with a heart defect, doctors telling his parents that he'd be fortunate to live to be 10.

He beat the odds with the help of three pacemakers and a surgery to repair 10 holes in his heart. But at age 42, there was no option left other than a transplant.

"A Mayo doctor told me then that, scientifically, Mike shouldn't be alive," Ginny said.

His heart was operating at 20 percent when he was placed on the transplant list, with the family moving to Rochester to be ready when a donor heart was available. On Day 57 of his wait, he was being prepped for surgery, only to have doctors decide at the last minute to give the heart to someone else.

"Mike was mad, but I had peace about it," Ginny said. "It just felt like the heart wasn't the right one. We found out that was true."

Instead, on Day 61, with his heart working at 5 percent and his voice barely a whisper, Mike received the heart of Greg, a young adult from rural Minnesota who had died in a motorcycle accident.

"It was a perfect match," Mike said.


A photograph of Greg's family is on the Blakes' kitchen wall. The families exchange Christmas cards.

Six years after the transplant, the Blakes spent an emotional and heartwarming day with Greg's family at their lake home.

"They were wonderful and I think they got solace that Greg's heart went to an OK family," Mike said. "We talked for a long time, but at no time could Greg's mom look at me. I understood completely."

Active lifestyle

At age 58, Mike said, he's tired at the end of the day. But he has more energy than he perhaps ever has had as an adult.

He pushes the lawn mower and the snowblower, takes long walks and plays the drums in the popular local three-man band Jazz on Tap. He had a recent week where he left for work at 7 in the morning and returned at 11.

At a percussion class last week, his bushy eyebrows danced and his eyes grew wide as he taught techniques with the drumsticks and tambourine. His critiques were simultaneously frank and gentle -- "Oh, we crashed there," he said with disappointment in his voice.

He scolded the music majors not to "dog paddle" with the drumsticks, then adding the encouragement of "we'll snap you out of that."


Bottom line: He was fully engaged the entire 50 minutes, even without taking a single sip from his signature gigantic McDonald's Diet Coke plastic cup behind him.

"His stamina now is unbelievable," Ginny said. "Mike can run up a flight of stairs. Before, he could barely walk up a flight of stairs.

"That's great because Mike is wired tight and he likes to go."

Mike needed a year after the transplant to recuperate, but then returned to work at UND.

"The doctors said to go back to work," Mike said. "They said having a purpose in life extends life.

"The other three guys in my unit didn't go back to work."

He feels a responsibility to treat his second heart with care. He also feels a responsibility to educate others, so he speaks to high school biology classes and to UND Medical School students, among others.

He has provided advice to the family of Kevin Fee, the former Herald sports editor who received a heart transplant last week on Mike's 16th half-birthday.


"I haven't met Kevin yet, but I think we'll become friends quickly," Mike said.

A perfect fit

The Sweet Sixteen half-birthday was spent with the family of daughter Brittney's fiancé. They watched the 1991 movie "Father of the Bride," with Steve Martin playing the title role of the frazzled dad.

"That role fits Mike perfectly," Ginny said.

Sixteen years ago, with his daughter being a second-grader, playing that role didn't seem possible.

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send e-mail to .

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