Sharon VanSickle Wiltse’s days are filled with simple, sweet pleasures: sitting on the swing in her garden, spending time with loved ones and cuddling with Sami, the family dog.
At age 82, Sharon is also a record-breaker: she’s Sharp HealthCare’s longest-living heart transplant patient.
In June, the great-grandmother celebrated the 30th anniversary of her heart transplant. No other patient has crossed that survival threshold since Sharp Memorial Hospital’s transplant program began in 1985.
“She’s remarkable,” says Kristi Ortiz, RN, heart transplant nurse practitioner at Sharp Memorial. “To survive that long — especially when so little was known about heart disease and women at the time of her transplant — it’s just incredible.”
Sharon, whose heart was severely damaged by a virus, received her transplant in 1990, when the average expected survival was barely eight years (it’s now almost 18). Her donor was a 22-year-old male who died in a motor vehicle accident.
She was the 76th person to receive a heart transplant at Sharp Memorial, and only the seventh woman. Today, more than 450 transplants have been performed at the hospital.
Wende Carleson, one of Sharon’s three daughters, was in her 20s when her mother received her new heart. She recalls her mother’s confidence going in for the relatively new surgery as well as her fast recovery.
“The nurses got her up and walking pretty quickly,” Wende says. “She was just ready to get on with life.”
Since then, Sharon has enjoyed traveling with family and has welcomed five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She lives with Wende’s family, who help make sure Sharon takes her many daily medications that keep her immune system from attacking her heart.
During the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve stepped up efforts to keep Sharon safe; she only leaves the house to go to her quarterly doctor’s appointments. At those visits, it’s clear that Sharon continues to feel a strong bond with her care team, particularly Dr. Brian Jaski, a double board-certified cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital. Though Sharon is soft-spoken, her eyes light up at any mention of her cardiologist, who has cared for her for more than three decades.
“He’s just the most wonderful man,” Sharon says.
At each visit, Sharon gives Dr. Jaski a hug and leaves some of her carefully applied lipstick on his white physician’s coat — a tradition that began as an accident during their early appointments together, and one that grew into a special inside joke between them. These hugs are on pause during the coronavirus pandemic but the mutual respect between them is not.
“She’s been a great patient, no doubt about that,” says Dr. Jaski. “She’s a lovely person with a great family, and they’ve taken wonderful care of her. You can’t ask for more than that for a patient.”
As for Sharon’s longevity, Wende believes it may have something to do with her mom’s outlook on life.
“Nothing bothers her; she’s a free spirit,” Wende says. “Honestly, I never thought she’d be around this long. Every day is a blessing. She’s a miracle.”
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Brian Jaski about Sharp HealthCare’s heart transplant program for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.