Organ donor recipients: From the brink of death to running again, coaching baseball
- July 10, 2018
- Salinas Californian
By, Joe Szydlowski
Michael Vollstedt remembers the night he told his wife he thought he was going to die.
His heart had stopped beating, and his eyes stopped seeing. Vollstedt, who lives in Salinas, could still hear as firefighters and paramedics were trying to save him.
“The paramedics hit my arm with a syringe, tore open my shirt and used (defibrillator) paddles,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m here guys.'”
He’s still here, thanks to a man who was an organ donor, giving Vollstedt a new heart Aug. 11, 2013.
Like Vollstedt, George Grimm, 64, lives in Salinas and is active, including coaching baseball for Everett Alvarez High School, after a heart transplant.
Grimm’s new heart, however, came from Sisto Fuentes, then 31, who was a friend’s brother, he said.
On Monday, both Grimm and Vollstedt were at Natividad to celebrate the official opening of the Wall of Hope, which shares the stories of donors and recipients of organ transplants.
The stories on the wall, which originated at a hospital in Modesto, will hopefully convince people to register as organ donors, saving lives like Vollstedt’s, said Sandy Andrada, Regional Director of Donor Network West, which takes the wall to hospitals around the state.
The most commonly needed organ is a kidney, which accounts for about 80 percent of transplants. That means a person in need will wait seven to nine years for one, said Noel Sanchez, spokesman for Donor Network.
Those waiting use dialysis treatment, he said.
Hearts and livers are also needed, he said.
In Monterey County, 382 people are on waiting lists for organ transplants, said Dr. Craig Walls, chief medical officer at Natividad.
Vollstedt had no idea of his heart’s health: Five days before the attack, he said he daily ran five miles and had a black belt in karate.
At the emergency room, however, a doctor told him a third of his heart is dead, he said.
He tried to start jogging again but his heart couldn’t keep up. Four times an internal defibrillator shocked his heart to restart it during his runs.
“My doctor says to me, ‘Your running days are over,'” Vollstedt said.
He was put on Stanford University Medical Center’s transplant list. He waited for more than a year-and-a-half until he got a phone call at 1 a.m.
After the surgery, he put on a smile but pain left him in agony for days, he said.
“I had tears, said, ‘God, if I’d known it’d be this difficult, I wish you’d have let me die,'” he said.
He then saw an apparition of a young man he first thought was God, noting he was on dozens of medications. But he said he believes it was his donor encouraging him on.
“He gave you the ultimate gift. He gave you life,” Vollstedt said. It inspired him to redouble his commitment to healing and returning to skiing and running, he said.
Grimm received Fuentes’ heart and kidney on Feb. 24, 2014, a few days after an accident left Fuentes braindead.
Unlike Vollstedt, Grimm didn’t remember anything from his heart attack in 1992, he said.
Seven years ago, he had a defibrillator installed on his heart that would jolt it back to life should it stop beating, he said. About nine months later, he had to constantly use a special portable 20-pound machine to circulate his blood, he said.
In February of 2014, Grimm’s longtime-friend, Freddie Fuentes, 43, of Salinas, learned his brother would not recover from an accident. Knowing Grimm’s weak heart and his brother’s prognosis, he called Grimm, who turned out to be a perfect match, Grimm said.”
Within a few months, he was able to go home.
Now, he coaches baseball at Everett Alvarez High School and is raising two grandchildren, he said.
Vollstedt also recovered and restarted hobbies he thought he’d never do again.
“In six months I was running. In seven months I was skiing,” he said.