It doesn’t take long to understand Lisa Casper’s approach to life.
She doesn’t have any grand unfulfilled plans and doesn’t intend on making some. Instead, she counts each day as one more in a remarkable story of living longer than anyone guessed when she had a heart transplant 30 years ago.
“I kind of live day by day. Let’s see what happens,” the Flandreau native and 1987 graduate said. While she is healthy and has annual checkups at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, the last visit started to show a small amount of stress on her heart. “It’s not going to last forever.”
But doctors are optimistic and encourage her continued healthy, low-sodium and low-fat diet. “The doctors I have right now are really positive and work really hard at longevity.”
Recently, Casper and her family – her parents are Gary and Patty Duncan of Flandreau – had a low-key celebration of 30 years of life with a new heart during a small gathering of her relatives. She rounded up buttons they had used for fundraisers over the years, including several bearing her transplant number of 236, marking her surgery number among those done since 1978 when the medical center started the transplant program. In the last 30 years, the transplant number has crept into the 900s, showing that surgeries to replace a heart still are rare.
The heart Casper received as a 21-year-old newlywed in 1990 has lasted longer than the troubled heart she was born with. It’s also kept beating long after her first doctors predicted.
“At the time, they told me to expect 10 years,” she said. “At age 30, I had a doctor who said I would never make it to age 40. I’d kind of like to talk to him right now.”
Casper will turn 52 next Halloween, owns her own custom tarp business in Lake Preston and enjoys gardening and other hobbies at the home she shares with her husband, Troy, in Arlington.
Her business, where she sews tarps with commercial machines on a table nearly as long as the shop itself, has helped her have something to look forward to each day, she said.
“This business has kind of kept me going. I’m not sitting on my butt at home, wondering, worrying,” she said. “I can usually get my 10,000 steps in just working here every day, just getting around this table.”
And if she is having an off day, she can close up shop and take it easy. “For the most part, I do really well,” she said. That includes rolling out 20 to 50 yards of fabric at a time for tarps used on boats, trucks and other items and working for more than a dozen hours a day.
In her spare time, she has plenty to do, too. “I ride motorcycle, read books and garden. I just like being with my family,” she said. She also takes time to rest in between it all.
She thinks about her heart and how it is aging with her. “I’ve had it longer than she did,” she said.
“She” is the 22-year-old woman who died in a motorcycle accident, a young woman whose family donated her heart to give a stranger a second chance at life. Casper doesn’t know who the woman is but has written a couple of letters to the family – one at 10 years and one at 15 – delivered through an agency that can reach out to the family. She never heard back.
She understands that they lost a daughter and have had grief.
“It does make me sad because I would have liked to have the opportunity to say, ‘thanks.’”
Casper’s story of her heart started at birth. Doctors at the Dell Rapids hospital where she was born and her parents knew something was wrong, and at her six-week checkup, she went to the University medical center. They discovered her heart was twisted and ran backwards. At age 10, she had open heart surgery to replace the mitral valve with a plastic one. She remembers how the valve would click loud enough that others could hear it. It was a huge disadvantage when playing hide and seek because other children could listen and find her.
A year after she got married, she felt tired, was retaining fluid and couldn’t breathe as well. Her doctors told her the left side of her heart was losing ground rapidly. She and her family had to decide if she wanted to try for a transplant, possibly a heart and lung transplant.
While she ended up only needing a heart, the decision to seek a transplant took a lot of thought. It was not something she would do for a short time. It was forever. Although her insurance company eventually covered the transplant, at first it wasn’t sure it would because it had never paid for one before.
“It is a commitment,” she said of the decision. “The battle isn’t just going to be fought today. It’s going to be fought every day.”
Casper’s mom remembers the moment her daughter was paged to let her know there was a heart available. She, her daughter and a few others were out looking at rummage sales in Minneapolis, where Casper had been staying for seven months waiting for the call, when the beeper went off.
Duncan also has a picture seared into her mind of Casper walking with the surgeons into the operating room to get her heart.
“That was an amazing thing to watch,” Duncan said.
She has been with her daughter at a majority of appointments, stayed with her in Minneapolis after the surgery and has seen her fight a difficult battle to get better.
“I never lost faith that she would get a heart. She’s also one of the strongest people I know and has fought the odds. I guess I’m proud to say I’m her mom,” said Duncan, 73.
Sometimes she goes to Casper’s shop and volunteers, working beside her daughter who she considers one of her best friends.
“It’s probably some of the most special time I have with her,” Duncan said. “You can’t worry about the future. I always thank God we’ve had her as long as we have because we never thought we would. Every year we have her is another amazing miracle.”
Casper takes 10 prescription medications daily to help her heart to continue to beat inside her chest. She can tell if she misses one by how she feels. She’s not sure why she has been one of the people fortunate to live beyond expectations, but it is a battle she has been willing to fight every day.
Perhaps it is her stubborn attitude, her will to keep going, her medical care or her strong support system. “God has obviously had a lot to do with it,” she said.
“You’ve got to be willing to fight. That’s just what it takes,” she said. “You really have got to look inside yourself to know if that’s who you are, to know if you want to fight for that.”
Because not many people have lived as long as Casper with a second heart, there isn’t much research to support what to specifically do at this point, she said. But there are miracles.
“I think miracles are real, they’re amazing, and that they do happen.”
– From the Moody County Enterprise