Heart recipient celebrates 10th anniversary of transplant

PHOTOS PROVIDED At left, local heart transplant recipient Curtis Abplanalp and his wife, Jeannie, kneel in front of their ATV with framed artwork of his donor, Craig MacLaren. Due to their shared interest in ATVs, Abplanalp said he keeps a picture of MacLaren with him whenever he rides. Above, Abplanalp celebrates the 10th anniversary of his transplant by raising a donor flag in Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hospital’s Gift of Life “Donate Challenge” kickoff promoting awareness of organ donation.

ELLSBORO — Curtis Abplanalp, of Wellsboro, has been thriving with someone else’s heart for the past 10 years.

To celebrate the anniversary of his transplant, Abplanalp joined a 5K Run/Walk and raised the donor flag in the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hospital’s recent Gift of Life “Donate Challenge” kickoff, something he said he was “honored” to be a part of.

The journey to a new heart began when Abplanalp, a former tractor trailer driver, suffered a massive heart attack on the road at age 35. He was able to safely pull over and call 911, and received life-saving treatment from Dr. Donald Shaw at Soldiers and Sailors.

He said he was in intensive care for almost two weeks, and had to stay in the hospital for about 30 days. He continued to drive truck after his recovery, but had a second heart attack at age 42. After further complications that lead to triple-bypass and heart reconstructive surgeries, Abplanalp had to give up his career.

“It was a hobby and my job because it took so much time and it was a job I loved very much,” he said. “It was pretty devastating when they said I couldn’t do it anymore.”

It soon became clear that he had only one option left to preserve his quality of life — a heart transplant. After more than eight months of waiting, Abplanalp got the call he’d been praying for.

“They called and said, ‘What would you say if you had a new heart?’ Well, I’d be speechless,” he recalled. “So they told me not to say anything because they got me a heart.”

“I was scared to death, but excited at the same time,” he added. “I knew I had to have it, but I was so scared to go through something as traumatic as that.”

At age 51, he received his new heart from Craig MacLaren, a young man out of Tennessee with a passion for fishing, ATV riding and mountain trails. MacLaren, 30, only had been married a year when a car crash took his life.

“When I ride (my ATV), I have a picture of him with me, so I always say, ‘Craig and I are going to hit the trails.’ He was a bit of a hellion, so he fits in really good here,” Abplanalp said.

MacLaren’s love for his family and community lived on to touch the lives of Abplanalp and four others.

Though the new heart did its job, recovery was no easy task. Abplanalp suffered from rhabdomyolysis, or a breakdown of muscle tissue that releases a damaging protein into the blood, due to one of his medications negatively reacting to the anesthesia used in surgery.

The surgery took place in April, but he wasn’t able to leave the hospital until the end of July due to rehabilitation. When he finally got to go home, it was in a wheel chair.

But, with his wife Jeannie by his side, Abplanalp said he took it one day at a time and he “came back from it.” He said he passed the state Department of Transportation exam and drove trucks again for a while simply to prove to himself he still could do it.

Even 10 years later, between work, advocacy and maintaining his health, Abplanalp said he keeps busy. He’s a member of the YMCA who enjoys working out, works as a subcontractor for the postal service and has a lawn service business on the side.

“And I do a lot of advocating for organ donation, so that takes up a lot of my time,” he said. “I keep myself busy.”

Over the years, Abplanalp and his wife have met and become friends with the donor’s mother, Diane Rutherford, of Alabama, and her husband. Through her, he said he has learned much about the man who gave him a new heart.

“I wanted to know who the family was. I wanted to know who the guy was, what he was like,” he said. “Who saved my life?”

The two couples will reunite in Alabama later this year to spend time together, including catching a NASCAR race. Abplanalp said they get together annually — last year, Rutherford came to Pennsylvania. But this year will be different. This year, the Abplanalps will meet MacLaren’s widow for the first time.

“It’s going to be another emotional time,” he said.

Abplanalp’s experience has inspired him and those around him to sign up and promote organ donation in the community. For more information or to register to become a donor, visit www.donors1.org.