Mayo Clinic Patient Story:
Transplant gives teenager a new outlook on life
When Tom Dollins visits Mayo Clinic, he likes to stop by the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and visit with young people who are waiting for heart transplants. He knows his visits raise the spirits of those young people. That's because visits like that raised his spirits when he was waiting for a new heart. Dollins, 17, had a transplant at Mayo Clinic in March 2001.
"When I was in the hospital waiting for a transplant, I hoped every day a new heart would come my way," says Dollins. "It was a scary time because I knew the situation was beyond my control. It helped me feel more hopeful when people who had successful transplants came back to visit, and I want to give that same hope to others who are in that situation. I just do what I can to help other people."
Not surprisingly, Dollins, who is a senior at Northland High School in Longville, Minn., is considering a career as a teacher. The young man shows maturity that belies his age -- a perspective he gained in the last several years.
A shocking discovery
Dollins' journey began when he was 14. He'd always been healthy although his parents noticed he was more tired than normal. One night he couldn't breathe properly, and his chest hurt. Dollins' parents were stunned to learn from physicians at an area hospital that their son's heart was twice its normal size. He was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy -- a condition of unknown cause. After going into cardiac arrest, Dollins was fitted with a pacemaker defibrillator. When his condition stabilized, his physicians recommended he go to Mayo Clinic for further consultation and possible treatment.
Dollins' new team of physicians at Mayo Clinic determined that the teenager needed a new heart. Dollins was admitted to Mayo Clinic in January 2001 to await a suitable transplant heart.
"Tom had been relatively stable, but we didn't want to risk anything going wrong," says Co-burn Porter, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist at Mayo Clinic "Heart transplant patients do much better when they're not in a crisis state when they receive the transplant."
Laughter helps Tom wait
A long wait in a hospital would be trying for any teen, particularly so for an admitted prankster. Kathy Dollins laughs when she recalls the jokes her son played on nurses and other staff.
"Tom had been asked to provide a urine sample in a portable plastic urinal," says Kathy. "He filled it up with apple juice and came out of the bathroom drinking it. He gave that nurse quite a shock. Another time he hid a toy mouse where he knew the social worker would find it. Of course, she screamed when she saw it and all the nurses came running. They got back at him. They decorated his room with yellow caution tape once and squirted him with water-filled syringes. The staff treated Tom like he was 15. They played cards with him until all hours of the night and let him try all the menu selections the hospital offered, including an Arabic diet. I'm eternally grateful for the fun environment they helped create for my son. It made the two-month wait much more tolerable and enjoyable for him and for me."
A heart is on the way
March 12, 2001, started like any other day of Dollins' hospital stay. But that night, physicians informed the family that a heart was available. Early the next morning Dollins received the heart in a six-hour surgery.
"It almost didn't work out because of weather," says Kathy. "The heart was being transported by plane to Rochester, and weather was bad, with poor visibility. A nurse who had just driven to Rochester reported that road conditions weren't so bad, so the heart was flown to the Twin Cities and driven to Rochester. Everyone involved in the process pulled together to help Tom get the heart he needed."
After the transplant, Dollins recuperated at the nearby Gift of Life Transplant House in Rochester for another 2 1/2 months. He was given the go-ahead to return home in early June -- just in time to see his sister Kelly graduate from high school. Just in time to be confirmed at his church. And just in time to cheer on the start of the annual turtle racing season in his town -- known as the Turtle Racing Capital of the World.
Making the most of a normal life
Life is back to normal for Dollins and his family. In the summer, he works part time at an area resort and at a local restaurant.
"If you looked at Tom, you wouldn't know what he has been through," says Kathy. "But we see the little changes. He has always been very loving, but more so now. He'll say 'I love you, Mom' or give us hugs in front of other people. I see how he reaches out to patients waiting for transplants at Mayo Clinic. It's so good for them to see how healthy he is. It gives them hope, and it does something for Tom too."
Dollins finds it difficult to express what he has been through but says that it has given him a different outlook. "I have a second chance at life," says Dollins. "I'm living each day to its fullest. I don't take anything for granted or have any regrets. I'd do it all again if the reward -- life -- was this good."
News of his death
U of N.D. student suffers seizure, dies
A University of North Dakota student went into a seizure Friday afternoon in a school residence hall and later was pronounced dead at the hospital, according to university police.
Police Chief Duane Czapiewski said no foul play is suspected and that drugs and alcohol have been ruled out as a cause in the death of Thomas Armstrong Dollins IV, 20, from Longville, Minn.
"It appears to be prior medical history," Czapiewski said. "At this point, there's nothing to indicate anything other than natural causes."
Dollins' father told members of UND's Crisis Coordination Team that his son had received a heart transplant in March 2001. UND housing officials said they were not aware of Dollins' medical condition before Friday's incident, the report said. The police report said that prescribed drugs for Dollins' medical condition were found in his room.
Emergency responders were called to the third floor of Walsh Hall about 3 p.m. Friday. Dollins was in a seizure when crews arrived, and eventually stopped breathing, the police report said.
Dollins was taken to Altru Hospital, Czapiewski said.
UND last listed Dollins as a freshman majoring in pre-business. His hometown of Longville is about 170 miles southeast of Grand Forks near Leech Lake.
— Pioneer Press