(ST. LOUIS) Steven Williams, a pilot for Fostaire Helicopters in St. Louis, delivered a donor heart to Barnes-Jewish Hospital for transplant June 30, just like he has dozens of times in the last five years. This time, though, the heart was for his boss, Arlene Thomas.
Arlene and her husband Clarke, of Oakville, MO, own Fostaire, a St. Louis charter helicopter company. For most of the 27 years the Thomases have owned Fostaire, they have delivered donor organs here flown from outside of the region to the helipad at Barnes-Jewish.
Arlene was the one who most frequently arranged with Mid-America Transplant Services, the area’s organ procurement organization, to ferry coolers of donor organs and accompanying transplant surgeons between Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, where planes carrying organs landed, and the area’s transplant centers – most frequently Barnes-Jewish.
Last summer, Arlene suddenly fell ill with episodes of ventricular tachycardia, a condition where the lower chamber of the heart beat extremely rapidly. The episodes lasted from 10 minutes to seven hours.
Cardiologists at another area hospital couldn’t treat the problem and sent the Thomases to The Cleveland Clinic. Specialists there found that Arlene was suffering from a rare disease, cardiac sarcoidosis, and she’d need a transplant. They referred her to the Washington University heart transplant team at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, so she could go through the transplant process close to home.
Read more on Barnes-Jewish heart transplant outcomes
Arlene was evaluated and added to the transplant waiting list at Barnes-Jewish. In May, when her condition deteriorated, she was admitted to Barnes-Jewish to wait for a new heart.
After seven weeks, the phone in her hospital room rang.
Barnes-Jewish transplant nurse coordinator Suzanna Ebert, RN, was on the other end. Ebert had previously worked as transplant coordinator for Mid-America Transplant Services. Part of her job there included setting up helicopter transport for donor organs – with Fostaire.
“Yes, I was the one calling Arlene and getting her out of bed at three in the morning,” Ebert said.
This time, the message was different.
“She asked me if I was ready to get rid of my old heart,” Arlene said. “I said I was ready to get out of here.” When Ebert told her a donor heart had been found, “I went into shock for about 30 minutes,” Arlene said. “Then I called my husband and told him, and he went into shock for about 30 minutes.”
Clarke Thomas called the Fostaire office to find out about the arrangement and see which pilot was scheduled to make the flight with the donor heart. But he didn’t mention to anyone at the office that the heart was for Arlene.
“Steven Williams is fine pilot and I knew everything would go the way it should,” Clarke Thomas said. “I didn’t want him to feel any pressure. We’re a very close company, and we’re like family. This was like Mom getting a new heart.”
Clarke and the Thomas’s daughters, Andrea Schutte and Alicia Jaruzel, watched Williams land on the helipad atop Barnes-Jewish’s Southwest Tower building shortly after 10 p.m. on June 29. From there, it was taken to the operating rooms where Washington University heart transplant surgeon I-wen Wang, MD, transplanted it into Arlene.
Arlene’s recovery since the surgery has been rapid. Within two days, she was out of intensive care. Seven days after the surgery, she was discharged from Barnes-Jewish.
She’s looking forward to being at home for the first time in almost nine weeks and to seeing the Fostaire employees, especially Steven Williams.
“I haven’t seen Steve yet,” Arlene said, as she prepared to be discharged. “That will be really special.”