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Heart transplant recipient an organ transplant success story

By Staff | Mar 12, 2011

By MEGHAN McCOY
mmccoy@breezenewspapers.com
A surprise was given to a member of the Rotary Club of Cape Coral North Wednesday night to mark the success of a heart transplant he had 17 years ago.
The club proclaimed the week of March 9 as Ronald Bruce week, along with devoting a meeting to the benefit of organ donation during that week.
“It was a great meeting,” Bruce said. “A week named for me in Rotary; what an honor.”
He said he was completely surprised about the proclamation and the meeting dedication.
Bruce chartered the club on Oct. 22, 1992 with 27 members because he thought Cape Coral needed another Rotary Club for the newer section of Cape Coral. He said he is the only charter member left in the club.
Bruce moved to Cape Coral from Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1987 with his wife, Helen.
Bruce said he has been cooking all of his life thanks to his mom who taught him the trade. Before joining the Navy, he cooked on tugboats, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He attended the Academy of Culinary Arts, which continued his many years in the culinary field.
While in New Jersey he worked at the Trump Plaza, the Gold Nugget and Claridge in cold foods and banquets. Although he enjoyed everything about cooking, he said ice carving stuck out the most, especially a four-foot tug boat ice carving he created.
Although the couple owned a restaurant and catering business over the years, Bruce said he enjoyed working in the casinos in New Jersey because it broadened his understanding of culinary arts.
At 37, Bruce’s life changed. He can still remember the feeling he felt in his chest when he experienced his first heart attack.
Heart disease, which runs in his family, took his grandfather’s life when he was 40.
Five years after the heart attack he had his first bypass surgery. When he had his second bypass surgery five years later, doctors gave him a 20 percent chance of living.
After having nine heart attacks and eight bypasses done in 12 years, Bruce was put on a waiting list for a heart transplant. Fourteen months later, when he was 49, he was flown to the University of Florida Shands Hospital in Gainesville on Angel Flight to receive a heart transplant on March 9, 1994.
He was in the hospital for six weeks after he the transplant.
Helen explained that they ran into complications when his heart was in rejection. The doctors decided to use a procedure that, at the time, was only used for patients who were having a kidney transplant done.
She said the doctors decided to recycle his blood to see if it would take him out of rejection,. The second time proved the charm.
“It was an experiment and it worked,” Helen said about her “miracle man.”
In 2007, Bruce was in a coma for three weeks due to various reason, including pneumonia and septic shock that he got while in the hospital, which he said caused him “to go in and out of death five times.”
“I don’t want to go any place yet,” Bruce said.
Helen Bruce said after he came out of the coma he had to learn how to walk again.
Although he has a young heart, at 66 years old and 17 years of taking 32 different medications a day, it is starting to take a toll on his body.
One of those medications stated a side effect of skin cancer, which he has been battling for 10 years now due to taking it.
“It has gotten progressively worse over the years,” he said about the skin cancer.
In addition to the skin cancer, Bruce said he has been having kidney problems for the past five years and just recently his liver has been giving him problems due to the amount of medication he is taking.
“My heart is in very good shape,” he said, but he is much weaker now than when he first had his transplant done. “I feel weak and tired.”
The couple, who have been married for 48 years, started to experience financial struggles after Bruce had his transplant due to the cost affiliated with the amount of prescriptions he has to take.
Helen Bruce is currently working two jobs to support them. She works for Hyatt and Marriot Sanibel Harbor Princess, a dinner and brunch cruise.
Helen said about five years ago they were spending $5,000 a year on prescriptions, which has gone down from purchasing 42 prescriptions to 32.
After one of his friends told him that the VA can help, Ron Bruce decided to check it out, which has saved them between $2,000 and $2,500 a year on the cost of medication.
He explained that all he has to do is give the VA a 10-day notice of what he needs and they will send it to him.
“It has gone down a lot since we got it (medication) from the VA,” Bruce said.
When they first began receiving prescriptions from the VA, Bruce said they were not able to buy the immune suppressive drug he needed for his heart.
“They didn’t have the good stuff to keep you alive,” he said, adding that now he can obtain the prescription from them.
Although it has been a scary ride for Helen over the years, she shared that she is very thankful for his doctors.
“You couldn’t ask for anyone better,” she said. “All of his doctors are fantastic.”
Bruce believes he is still alive because of them.
“I am very fortunate…I am still alive because of my doctors,” he said. “They are all great to me.”
In 1992, Bruce became a member of the Organ Transplant Recipients of SW Florida after Mac Fletcher began the group. They meet on the first Thursday of each month at Gulf Coast Medical Center at 11:30 a.m. For information visit www.organsupport.org .