Minnesota newlyweds celebrate life together with two transplanted hearts
Jimmy Dunbar and Sheila Daley of Rochester celebrate their life of second chances together.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — When Jimmy Dunbar married Sheila Daley in February, it felt to him as if there were four people at the altar instead of two.
There was Jimmy and Sheila, and then there were their heart donors who had given the newlyweds a second chance at life.
“I kept thinking that I wouldn’t be here doing this if I didn’t have that heart,” Sheila said. “I was just grateful.”
How rare is it for a married couple to both be the beneficiaries of heart transplants? It is impossible to say. It seems like in this wide world there must be others. But in all their many doctor’s appointments over the years, the couple have never heard of any.
The Rochester couple were married on Feb. 22, 2022, in Las Vegas. The twos — 22nd day, second month, all those twos in 2022 — symbolizes something both shared and celebrated by them: Second chances. The wedding was also held on a Tuesday.
Both received their heart transplants at Mayo Clinic Arizona and conducted by the same surgeon, but their paths to getting there were very different.
'I've been through it'
Before marriage, Jimmy and Sheila's lives intersected at various times. They both were members at the Rochester Country Club and met 16 years ago.
They walked the same lake together and ran into each other in spring 2015 when both were at different stages of their transplant journey.
Jimmy already had his heart. Sheila had been diagnosed with a genetic heart condition and had received a pacemaker and defibrillator. Jimmy could tell her what to expect.
“He goes, 'Well, I’ve been through it,’” Sheila recalled.
A real estate agent for more than three decades, Jimmy was in the kitchen of his Rochester home when he suffered a heart attack. His then-wife alerted a neighbor, who also happened to be one of the top hand surgeons in the world. That neighbor performed CPR.
Once Jimmy arrived at the hospital, rather than perform open heart surgery, Mayo Clinic doctors opted to insert a stent to open up blocked arteries. Less than a week later — in his house again — Jimmy suffered a second, more severe heart attack.
This time, emergency medical personnel worked to restart his heart for 45 minutes. They revived him, but in the process of performing CPR, his sternum was broken, ribs cracked, and his heart was “mashed,” Jimmy said. To keep him alive, surgeons inserted an artificial heart connected to a machine that was meant to serve as a bridge to a transplant.
Then he waited and waited. Jimmy wasn’t allowed to return home because if he did, he would drop on the heart transplant list. Weeks turned into months.
A trip to Arizona
“I got tired of waiting here. And I was a horrible patient, because I just wanted to get out of there and they wouldn’t let me go,” Jimmy said.
So, against his doctor’s advice, on New Year’s Eve 2015, Jimmy and his wife embarked on a four-day trip to Mayo Clinic in Arizona. The machine that kept his artificial heart beating was plugged into the car — and a back-up was brought along just in case.
Though smaller than Mayo Clinic in Rochester, the Arizona clinic performs twice as many heart transplants for reasons that are tragic and “unfortunate,” Sheila said. Phoenix, being a large metropolitan area with a much larger population, has a much bigger donor pool. Jimmy calls it the “Wild West.”
Motorcycle accidents, gunshot deaths and drug overdoses all contribute to that burgeoning supply of available organs.
“That’s your typical donor,” Sheila said. “It’s usually a young, fairly healthy person with a high-risk lifestyle.”
Jimmy was admitted to the hospital a couple weeks before Phoenix played weekend host to fun-filled events, including the Super Bowl and a Barrett-Jackson car auction show. The events drew millions to the area, but also created conditions likely to produce a donor.
Sure, enough, Monday came around. “We have a match,” doctors told Jimmy.
The transplant didn’t happen right away. Surgeons rejected the first two hearts because they weren’t deemed healthy enough. But then another heart became available — a good viable heart except for one minor risk identified by doctors. Jimmy took it.
“I tell people that by that point in my life, I would have taken a large dog’s heart,” Jimmy said. “I was so frustrated with waiting.”
The reluctant patient
By comparison, Sheila, a psychologist, was more the reluctant patient, and Jimmy became her guide.
When they met on their walk in 2014, Jimmy was still married and Sheila was seeing someone. Now it was two years later and both were single. Jimmy asked through Facebook Messenger if she was interested in getting a cup of coffee.
The invitation later led to a date at a Minnesota Vikings-Miami Dolphins football game. Jimmy is a big Dolphins fan, Sheila a Vikings enthusiast. They became a couple.
A heart arrhythmia and shortness of breath prompted Sheila to see a doctor, who told her she had a rare genetic condition.
“They said, unfortunately, there is no cure for this,” Sheila said. “Your biggest risk is to have a cardiac arrest because of your arrhythmia.”
Yet, at times, Sheila was uncertain about her need for a transplant. She had always been active and healthy. Jimmy had been very sick by the time he received his. Sheila didn’t feel anywhere near as sick as he had been. Yet doctors told her she was in heart failure.
And it became clear over time that Sheila was in decline. On their 4-mile walks together, she was slowing down and struggling to catch her breath. Jimmy wanted to marry her, but he held back because of the uncertainty of their life together.
One day, Sheila collapsed in the home they shared, after having a bad reaction to new medication to treat her arrhythmia.
Sheila got put on the transplant lists in both Rochester and Arizona.
“Arizona is three hours away by plane,” Jimmy said. “I mean, how do you do that? But we told them we would get there.”
Months after her cardiac incident, Sheila got a call from her Arizona doctor. They had a heart. It looked good. He asked if she could get “down here” right away. She was told she needed to be at the hospital by 10 the next morning.
“So we booked a flight early the next morning,” Sheila said. “We got the last two seats on the plane. Thank goodness, there were no delays. We walked into the hospital at 9:56 a.m. And the surgeon met me in the lobby.”
Roughly five years after Jimmy received his new heart, Sheila received her own in 2020.
Jimmy and Sheila are celebrating their eight-month anniversary together. They support each other. They remind each other when to take their medications. When Sheila has a question about how she is responding to medication, she can ask Jimmy. They are an ongoing information feedback loop.
“We’re both on the same meds, so if I run out of something, I go, ‘Hey, do you have some of this?’” Jimmy said.
“Don’t tell our doctor,” Sheila said, laughing.
Jimmy has since written to his donor family.
He calls it the hardest letter he has ever written. He said he has since learned that his donor was a “good-looking young man” who was attending college and a motorcycle rider. He hadn’t checked the donor box when he had originally applied for a motorcycle license. But when he went back to renew it, he did so shortly before his death.
His donor died driving to work in an older car that didn’t have seat belts or airbags. A large truck clipped the corner of his car, sending the vehicle in a 360-degree spin. Although the donor suffered no broken bones in his body, he experienced severe head trauma.
Gratefulness and second chances
The couple appreciates everything they do together — and their life of second chances.
“Why we take this time to share our story is the gift of life,” Sheila said. “We’ve been able to receive that. It makes a difference for not only us, but my kids and grandkids get to be with us longer.
“And for those families who make that big decision in their time of grief and pain, what a thing. To check the box, be a donor and give that gift of life.”