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Larry Guffey, a Bloomfield resident, received a heart transplant on June 13, 1993. On Thursday, he celebrated his 20 year anniversary of the heart
Larry Guffey, a Bloomfield resident, received a heart transplant on June 13, 1993. On Thursday, he celebrated his 20 year anniversary of the heart transplant. Only 36 percent of heart transplant patients live to celebrate their 20th heart transplant anniversary. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)
FARMINGTON — In June 1993 — after Larry Guffey had five heart attacks — he received a heart transplant.

Doctors told him they could guarantee “10 good years,” Guffey said.

On Thursday, the 66-year-old Bloomfield man celebrated the 20th anniversary of his heart transplant. Guffey said he feels like he has been blessed.

"The Lord provides for all that I need," Guffey said.

The milestone is both personally significant and an impressive medical feat. Only 36 percent of heart transplant recipients live 20 years or longer, according to statistics from New Mexico Donor Services.

"We only have a handful of people -- two handfuls of people -- who are able to have a 20 year anniversary," said Maria Sanders, community relations manager for New Mexico Donor Services.

Guffey had his first heart attack in 1979 when he was 31. At that time, he had bypass surgery.

"It's a wakeup call to change your lifestyle," Guffey said.

The heart attack wasn't entirely unexpected. Guffey's father was 39 when he died of a heart attack, and his three brothers have also had heart problems.

After the first heart attack, Guffey suffered four more.

In February 1993, he was added to a waiting list for heart transplants.

At that time, the donor program wasn't nationwide. Instead, organs went to the person in the same state as the donor. And, in 1993, the Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque was one of the top 10 transplant centers.

In 2002, the Presbyterian Hospital closed its transplant center, leaving no transplant center in the entire state. New Mexico candidates are added to lists in surrounding states.

"It's very much a challenge for people," Sanders said.

Sanders said many of the patients on heart transplant waiting lists are already in the hospital. Often, they stay in a hospital that has a transplant center, where they can wait for weeks or months. Some centers have apartments for patients, but, even before the operation, the medical bills add up.

BY THE NUMBERS

0: Transplant centers in New Mexico

4 to 6 hours: Time doctors have to get a heart from a donor to a recipient

3,502: Patients waiting for a heart transplant in U.S.

118,220: Patients on all organ transplant waiting lists in U.S.

10: New Mexicans waiting for a heart transplant

715: New Mexicans on waiting lists for an organ transplant/p>

2,378: Heart transplants performed in U.S. in 2012.

28,051: Organ transplants performed in 2012

Source: New Mexico Donor Services

Few people who need heart transplants are healthy enough to remain at home, Sanders said. And those patients have to be ready to board a plane and be at a transplant center in four to six hours. If they are any later, the donor heart will no longer be viable.

For a patient to receive a heart, the donor heart must be the right blood type and size. Doctors then determine if a patient is healthy enough to receive the heart.

"It's not that you pray that someone will die," Guffey said. "You pray that whoever does die will be able to help you."

After his heart transplant, Guffey, who had been a teacher at Farmington High School, retired on physical disability.

About five years later, he came out of retirement to teach at Mesa View Middle School. Eventually, he became an ordained minister and started preaching at Desert Hope Primitive Baptist Church in Bloomfield, where he is still a pastor.

In 2005, one of Guffey's kidney began to fail due to an anti-rejection drug he had been taking after his heart transplant.

At that point, he began to study nutrition and learned that "our bodies respond to nutrition differently." Also at that time, he was introduced to Pro-Argi9, a product developed by Dr. Louis Ignarro, who received the 1998 Nobel Prize in medicine. Ignarro claimed cardiovascular damage can be reversed using nitric oxide.

After starting Pro-Argi9, Guffey said his kidneys started to function normally, eventually allowing him to stop dialysis.

Back then, Guffey was taking 36 prescribed medications.

"When I got on Pro-Argi9, I saw that a lot of the side effects of the drugs were removed," Guffey said.

Eventually, he was able to stop taking most of the medications. Today, Guffey only has three prescribed drugs. He said he attributes much of his longevity to Pro-Argi9. Today, Guffey said he can do more than he could 20 years ago.

HEART TRANSPLANT SURVIVAL RATE

1 year: 86 percent

5 years: 75 percent

10 years: 56 percent

20 years: 36 percent

Source: New Mexico Donor Services

"I used to tell my grandkids to go out and play," Guffey said. "Now I can tell them, ‘Let's go out and play.'”

After he received his heart transplant, Guffey wrote to the family of his donor, thanking them for allowing their daughter to become a donor and promising to do his best to take care of and honor the heart. One way Guffey feels that he has honored the heart is volunteering to be an organ donor. Guffey said he prays for the donor's family every day. Her decision not only helped him, but it also helped several other people. He said the family should feel proud.

"Part of the legacy of their child is alive today," Guffey said.

All Guffey knows about the donor is that she was a 19-year-old Hispanic woman. He said that it sometimes feels as if he and his donor are kindred spirits.

"My life hasn't really changed, but I've become more aware of life itself and how precarious or how rare each moment is," Guffey said.

Guffey said receiving the heart allowed him to do things he wouldn't otherwise have been able to do. Guffey said he hopes that he instilled a strong sense of integrity in both his students and his grandchildren.

"I've never been one who saw life as a challenge," Guffey said. "I saw life as it happens. ... You make the best of it and try to do what will please the master." 

Hannah Grover covers news, arts and religion for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and hgrover@daily-times.com. Follow her on Twitter @hmgrover