One year after a heart transplant at Northwestern, LaSalle man is thriving

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Vincent “Butch” Plochocki empties grass cuttings into a bag at his home in La Salle, Ill. In May 2012, Plochocki underwent heart transplant surgery at Northwestern Hospital. | AP Photo/NewsTribune, Genna Ord

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Although more than 60 years old, Vincent “Butch” Plochocki of LaSalle recently celebrated a first birthday. That’s the first anniversary of living with a new heart.

“I’m free to do what I want,” he said.

That means a lot for a man who spent more than a year in need of a 24-hour care while carrying around a device that kept his heart pumping. Those days appear to be over after receiving a heart transplant in May 2012.

After a year with his new heart, Plochocki is getting used to living his own life again.

He’s taken over caring for his yard again, in particular regularly mowing his lawn — something he loves but was unable to do a year ago. He also walks about 2 miles each day.

Plochocki is still a little hesitant to perform some activities but with each day his body is getting stronger and more capable of resuming its old uses.

Plochocki also has returned to performing about eight to 12 hours of work each week at Air Products, where he worked for more than 30 years. Although limited to administrative projects and training others, getting back to work puts Plochocki that much closer to leading his old life again.

Still, not every aspect of his old life will be returning. He keeps to a low-fat, low-sodium diet now, although he admits to snagging a chicken wing when his wife Patricia orders fried chicken.

Overall, he said, it’s just not worth returning to an unhealthy lifestyle after everything he has gone through to get his new heart.

“It just makes me appreciate what my family went through and what my friends and the donor went through,” Plochocki said.

Plochocki regularly stresses how much his family and friends helped him get through his health problems and the transplant process.

His sons also have changed their own diets and quit smoking since seeing their father go through the heart transplant process, he said.

“What’s happened to me has benefited other people by seeing what’s happened to me,” he said.

Prior to receiving the new heart, Plochocki has spent about 18 months with a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that kept his blood flowing. Although vital to keeping his body in good shape, the LVAD was also a hindrance.

“We sleep a lot better not having to check batteries,” Patricia Plochocki said.

Mike Trump, a friend and neighbor of Plochocki, was one of the people who helped out during the illness.

Despite conditions that may be devastating to some people, Plochocki was motivated and focused on getting well, Trump said.

“If I ever have something like that I hope I can handle it as well,” Trump said.

It was an early morning phone call last year that signaled the end of the long wait for a new heart.

“They called at 2:30 a.m. and told me they had a heart and be up there as soon as I could be there,” Plochocki said.

It didn’t take long for Plochocki and his wife to hit the road for Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

“It was like getting a call that you had a baby coming. It was that exciting,” Patricia Plochocki said.

He had planned on giving his sons a pre-surgery speech about how he appreciates them and to advise them to take care of their mother in case he didn’t come out of surgery, but Plochocki said he was so confident in his surgical team he never got around to the speech.

“On my way to Chicago I don’t think I said but a couple of words, but I don’t once think I ever thought of not coming out alive,” Plochocki said.

But the excitement of getting the new heart also comes with the knowledge of that organ’s tragic origin.

“Somebody had to die for me to get this organ. I think about that person everyday,” Plochocki said.

He has since written a letter to the donor family, but he hasn’t heard back. The letter was sent through the hospital and organ donation system, so all details on the organ donor are still a mystery to Plochocki.

“I’m hoping some day that I’ll be able to meet the donor family,” he said, acknowledging that it’s certainly an emotionally difficult situation for that family but he would like to express how “extremely grateful” he is to them.

In the meantime, he’s become a passionate supporter and promoter of Donate Life Illinois and organ donation, in general.

“That’s what I preach now,” Plochocki said.

Donate Life Illinois reports there are currently 5,186 people in Illinois waiting for a “lifesaving organ transplant.” More than 6,500 died last year while waiting for organs.

“I’m just hoping I can get as many years out of this as I can,” Plochocki said.