It wasn’t until 1952 that the first open heart surgery was performed by two University of Minnesota surgeons, Dr. Walton Lillehei and Dr. John Lewis, on a 5-year-old girl with a hole in her heart.
Just 14 years after that major milestone in medical history, a young boy from Rockingham was offered a new life thanks to advances in cardiac surgery.
Mitchell Player, who was 6 years old at the time, and son of Mr. and Mrs. Bernie Player, had a hole between two chambers of his heart, according to a report in the April 28, 1966, Fayetteville Observer. Doctors at Duke Hospital told his parents the only hope for the little boy was open heart surgery.
His story touched the hearts of many in the community. Reports from archived issues of the Daily Journal and Fayetteville Observer show that 48 members of the Army’s 7th Battalion 16th and 15th Field Artillery donated 57 pints of blood and $282.12 to the little boy’s surgery.
Today, at age 52, Player recalls a little bit about the ordeal.
“I remember going into the operating room and seeing bright lights,” he said. “I remember being hooked up to a heart and lung machine, which was kind of experimental at the time.”
Experimental is right — “heart/lung” machines weren’t really viable until 1958. Previous models killed more patients than not.
After surgery, he was placed in something most people today don’t remember: an oxygen tent.
“I wasn’t really scared,” he said. “I didn’t understand and I thought it was all kind of a game.”
In 1966, open heart surgery wasn’t common. It wasn’t followed by cardiac rehab, and patients weren’t “in and out” of the hospital like most are today.
Player had to delay starting school for a year, and he spent most of that time resting and watching his siblings play.
“Well, that part was a little disappointing,” he said. “But my parents tried to keep me occupied. I do remember having to drink vitamin and iron supplements mixed with milk. It was the most awful thing.”
After that, Player said he lived a relatively normal life.
“I always had to be careful about what I did, but I started working when I was about 13 at horse stables,” he said. “After that, I worked in mills.”
He was working at a paper mill when his heart started acting up again. In 2008, he had a heart attack and received a pacemaker.
“They ended up telling me around 2003 that I would eventually need a heart transplant,” said Player.
He didn’t receive the lifesaving surgery until the end of May this year. By that time, his kidneys were failing too and a kidney transplant was also necessary.
“When I found out I was getting a heart and a kidney, I shouted and praised the Lord,” he said.
On Monday, Player was still recovering at UNC Hospital and hoped to come home this week.
“When I get better, I plan to go into the ministry and start giving my testimony,” he said. “I want to tell everyone how God has blessed me.”
He’s now left his wheelchair behind and walks 800 feet, three times a day.
“I couldn’t do that before,” he said. “Each day I can do a little more.”
He’s happy to have his appetite back, and has already noticed a change in his muscles. More than anything, he’s counting the days until he can spend time with his grandchildren.
“My grandkids are my heart; they are one of my reasons for living,” he said, choking up. “Before I could really only sit with them because I was so sick. I look forward to being able to do more than sit soon.”
He missed one granddaughter’s first birthday, but says the family will celebrate it again, when he’s able to join in the fun.
Player was able to return home to a big welcome from family and neighbors on Wednesday evening, but he and his family will soon have to think about more than celebrating. They will have to find a way to cope with the strapping cost of medicines.
According to the National Foundation for Transplants NC Transplant Fund, the average cost of a heart and kidney transplant is about $1 million. The cost of necessary medications afterward range from $2,000 to $5,000 each month.
Nothing can put a price on the love of this family, but there is a price tag attached to Player’s determination to see his grandchildren growing up.
“We spent every weekend with our grandsons when they were younger, and now he wants to do the same with our granddaughters,” said his wife, Peggy. “That’s the type of person he is — family means the most to him and he means the world to this family. The grandchildren love him to death. We are all so happy he’s finally back home.”
The NC Transplant Fund works to assist transplant patients with the high cost of medical care. A fund has been set up for him at www.transplants.org. To make a donation, click “find an NFT patient” and search for Mitchell Player. Checks can be mailed to the National Foundation for Transplants NC Transplant Fund, 5350 Poplar Ave. Suite 430, Memphis TN 38119. Checks must read “in honor of Mitchell Player” in the memo line. For additional information about the fund, contact 1-800-489-3863.
— Staff Writer Kelli Easterling can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 18, or by email at email@example.com.