A heart to give

For 25 years, Oakdale resident Ron Dick served the public as a division commander for the state of Minnesota’s protective services by kicking down doors in pursuit of criminals. Now, 17 months and a new heart later, he’s serving the public by opening doors to organ donations.

Ron never had a major medical problem prior to 1999, when he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. A year later, he was diagnosed with cardiomythapy and thought he would just have to take a lot of pills.

But when Ron’s health continued to decline for four more years, Dr. Alec Dunkle at Woodwinds Hospital said it was time to consider applying for a transplant. Ron agreed, and Dunkle sent a letter to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester on July 27, 2004.

The response was prompt – Ron and his wife were down at Mayo on Aug. 3 for an extensive evaluation process that lasted until Nov. 5. Ron remembers well the news that day.

“Dr. Duraney came and said, ‘I’ve got some really bad news: the only way you’re going to survive is with a heart transplant. I don’t even give you three months.’”

Ridiculous waiting

When Ron was admitted to the hospital in Rochester on Nov. 22, the situation seemed like a tragedy.

But Ron decided to turn it into a comedy, and he quickly got help in his act.

Six other transplant patients were admitted to the fourth floor of Domitilla, the Mayo building where Ron resided while awaiting a new heart. The unusually large group of transplant patients had months with nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait, and try to keep their minds off their physical pain that was often excruciating. So they got creative.

One of Ron’s most popular inventions was ‘IV-surfing,’ a game where the patients would race down the hallway riding their IV poles.

“We were holy terrors,” Ron said with a quick, easy laugh. “Those poor nurses will never be the same.”

“Ron’s nuts. He’s like the Energizer bunny,” said Mel Callies, a transplant patient from Austin who was admitted just eight days after Ron. “To Ron, everything was a toy.”

Everything was a game, too.

“Ron and our buddy Don Pickle (a transplant patient from Fairfield, Iowa) would come into your room and pretend to be doctors and operate on you,” Callies said.

“Ron’s the proverbial cheerleader,” said Callies’ wife, Judy, who Ron started calling “sis.”

Laughing alive

When Sister Gervais, an administrative consultant, would catch Ron IV-surfing, she’d ask, “Mr. Dick, are you trying to kill yourself?”

In reality, he was trying to stay alive. And keep his whole unit lively, too

“Ron gave everybody hope – he really kept the spirits up,” said Virgil Snell, a transplant patient from Milbanks, S.D.

“There were times when I could see he wasn’t feeling good neither,” Snell said. “But it wasn’t long before he was back up and trying to make it the best he could for the rest of us.”

Snell’s favorite memory of Ron is a prank he pulled off with the assistance of Bob Peterson, a transplant patient from Winona. Bob, pretending to be Merlin the Magician, sat a nurse down in a wheelchair in order to predict her future. That’s when Ron came from behind and tied her to the wheelchair with bandages, wheeled her to the elevator and sent her down to the first floor. Sr. Gervais happened to be waiting for the elevator at the first floor.

“Oh gosh, did we catch it,” Ron said with a guilty laugh.

A legacy of life

Ron did more than just raise heck on the floor. He raised the spirits of both the patients and nurses and transformed “transplant alley” into a home – holidays included.

On Dec. 22, Ron’s son Brian, an executive chef, prepared a prime rib meal for everyone on the floor.

Ron’s wife, Bonnie, bought plastic Christmas decorations that Ron and his crew hung from the ceiling. The gang also decorated their IV poles with Christmas lights. On New Year’s Eve, the “transplant alley” had a party, with two cases of confetti poppers. One of the nurses brought in light glow sticks, and Ron went around to all the rooms a few minutes before midnight handing them out.

Even while laid up waiting for transplants, Ron and his crew thought outside of the hospital and beyond themselves. They set up Bob Peterson with a tiny bell and a little bucket, soliciting for the Salvation Army on the fourth floor of Domitilla.

“It was probably illegal solicitation,” Ron said. “But Bob was great at it. If a doctor walked by and didn’t put any money in, Bob would say, ‘What, are you too cheap?’”

They didn’t bother with a Christmas tree on the floor, but Ron created something much more lasting and symbolic: a Tree of Life. Ron used crepe paper to make a large tree trunk they taped up in the hallway. The rest of the crew made dozens of green leafs and red hearts. Anyone considering becoming an organ donor was encouraged to post up a green leaf, while the hearts represented transplant recipients.

The Tree of Life is still hanging on the fourth floor of Domitilla today, full of leafs, hearts and hope.

“The main thing is we believe in it,” Ron said. “This tree might be made out of paper and tape, but this is us, right now. This is our lives.”

A new heart

“There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed,” Ron said. “But I said, ‘That heart’s coming, I know it is.’”

At 1:47 p.m. Feb. 25, Ron got the call he had been waiting 97 days for: there was a heart ready for him.

Ron’s heart had swelled to ten times the size of a normal heart. The transplant surgery went smoothly; Ron had no major problems. Following the standard three-month recovery in Rochester, Ron returned home in June.

The gang from “transplant alley” still stays in close touch, sharing memories and progress. The youngest of the seven died in December, waiting for a kidney, but four of the remaining six have received successful transplants. The other two are still hoping to add a red heart to the Tree of Life.

Living today

Ron now walks nine to 10 times a day, bikes six times a day and goes to Woodwinds Hospital three times a week for rehab. Despite the exercise, and a strict 1,750-calorie diet, Ron has gained 50 pounds due to the 11 drugs a day he takes for medicine.

“I have a $180,000 a month drug habit,” Ron joked, grateful for insurance.

Never mind the physical and financial challenges; Ron is happy just to be alive.

“I was given a tremendous gift: a second chance. Getting out of bed every morning is a wonderful gift in itself.”

Given that second chance, Ron has found new purpose in his life. He volunteers as a speaker for LifeSource, a St. Paul agency that encourages people to become organ donors. The same personality that served the prankster on “transplant alley” makes him valuable for LifeSource.

“Ron is immensely personable,” said Jeff Richert, the volunteer services coordinator at Life Source. “He’s perfect for this role. He really makes people feel at ease about a topic that can be kind of touchy.”

“If I can encourage two people to become donors, I’ll be happy,” Ron said. “The donors are the real heroes.”

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