- Posted October 2, 2012 by
La Crosse, Wisconsin
The Professor with Two Hearts
- dsashin, CNN iReport producer
When you first meet Professor Tom Volk you might question his multicolored hair, tattoos, or earrings. Given his appearance, you may not consider him to be an internationally recognized Mycologist - someone who specializes in the study of mold, mushrooms, and fungi. Once you realize that, you may wonder about what his motivation to research those dark and murky worlds hidden in forests, underground, or in laboratories filled with alien-looking plants.
For Tom Volk, a professor who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, little did he realize the same fungi he lectured to his students and researched in labs, would one day be used in the drug keeping him alive today. While living a relatively healthy life until 1997, Tom would undergo a series of life-changing health crises that ultimately transformed him into a “professor with two hearts.” He now teaches his students and the world how fungi impact our world, and how a heart transplant transformed his life. This is his dramatic and captivating journey.
When asked about his unique style Tom will tell you, “I have been through a lot of things.” He says when some students first meet him, they may not immediately relate, but once they do, they learn there’s much more to this professor than merely multicolored hair. Tom says his appearance helps challenge students “not judge a person by what they look like, but rather what they do or what they have to offer.”
Tom’s long journey began in 1997 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease - cancer of the lymph nodes. Fortunately through radiation treatment his cancer went into remission and did not return. However years later, because of radiation treatments, his heart was damaged and became enlarged. Soon his heart required a defibrillator to maintain a normal rhythm. To add to Tom’s heart problems, he contracted a flesh eating bacteria that ravaged his feet and legs. When he lectures to anatomy classes he first warns the students he is going to show the grotesque images of his body to make the experience real. After pausing a few seconds, he displays them on a large projection screen in the lecture hall. Some of the students gasp in shock; others look down, unable to comprehend the graphic nature of the images.
As the months passed, Tom eventually survived the flesh eating bacteria called necrotizing fasciitis. Unfortunately his heart continued to weaken- the result of the increasing number of shocks to his heart from his defibrillator. Tom tells the students when the defibrillator shocks his heart, “It feels like you are getting kicked in the chest.” It wasn’t long before his doctors at the Mayo Clinic told him that his only option was a heart transplant. He was put on the donor list in January of 2006.
Tom’s life would dramatically change with a late evening phone call on May 21, 2006. The person on the phone said, “This is the Mayo Clinic calling. We have a heart for you.” Tom vividly recalls the call. He remembered, “I was immediately terrified” and didn’t expect the call so soon. He did not know what was going to happen next, and things began to happen fast.
Tom’s students picked him up at his home and drove him to the Mayo Clinic, about 90 minutes away. He was prepped for surgery early the next morning. At 6:30am, May 22nd he went into surgery, and in about 3 hours he had a new heart. The next morning he was asked to walk. Two weeks later he was discharged from the hospital with his brand new heart. For several months he stayed at the “Gift of Life Transplant House” in Rochester, Minnesota, to heal both physically and mentally with other transplant patients.
Tom recalled that he immediately felt better. His face began to take on a pink color, and his blood pressure returned to normal. He remembers that at first it was hard to sleep, thinking that someone had died and he had received their heart. For a transplant patient, there are physical and psychology issues they go through. “I didn’t know how to deal with it,” Tom recalls. Across his hospital room there was another woman that had received the lungs from the same person Tom received his heart from. “I felt grateful to that person…… and very grateful to their family who ultimately had to make the decision to donate these organs.”
To commemorate his difficult health journey, Tom decided to get three distinctive tattoos. On his right arm is a color tattoo depicting the underground portion of the morel fungus. It is inscribed with the word Mykos, the Greek word for fungus. On his left arm is a cross section of a mushroom’s gill showing how the spores are attached to the mushroom’s structure. Sometimes in class he uses his “tattooed arm” to demonstrate the structures of the mushroom to questioning students. As you continue up the same arm there is a tattoo commemorating his heart transplant date May 22, 2006. He received this tattoo on the second anniversary of receiving his new heart. Each of the tattoos graphically illustrates the long difficult journey Tom has traveled.
Tom says there were a number of times he was near death, but was able to overcome the odds. He still takes a wide assortment of drugs to stay alive. One drug he takes daily is Cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant drug which prevents his body from rejecting his new heart. Ironically, this is one of the drugs that comes from fungi, and is discussed and researched in his classes. The drug comes from the fungi Cordyceps subsessilis which can be typically found on an underground beetle of the family Coleptera- a topic his students have actively researched.
As Tom lectures to various classes at the university, he shows students X-rays, animated EKG’s, and photos of his transplant journey. His presentations are both captivating and intriguing. Tisha King-Heiden, an Assistant Professor of Biology frequently invites him to speak to her Human Anatomy and Physiology classes. Professor King-Heiden says, “ What Tom does is make science real. What he shows the class is what actually happened to him, and it helps students connect the science to the person.”
In the large lecture hall, at the end of the talk, Tom brings his story into sharp focus to the audience. He carries with him a soft, fiber “cozy” adorned with replicas of mushrooms and colored with the dyes of various fungi. Inside lays his old heart in a plastic bag suspended in liquid. As he brings it out of the bag, the eyes of the students are transfixed on Tom’s old heart. As few gasps echo throughout the hall from the audience. As Tom’s new heart beats with a strong sustained rhythm, his old heart lies in his hands, making the story real and undeniable. As Tom says, “I can hear the gasps from the audience when I bring out my old heart. It really brings it all home- that I had a transplant and this is my heart.”
“The first time I held my heart I cried because it was very emotional….thinking about the person who died, and whose heart is now in my body.”
Tom’s hope is to have other people consider the importance of donating their organs for others to receive their “gift of life.” Not all transplant hopefuls are as lucky. Some people never live long enough to find an organ match, while others simply don’t have sufficient health insurance. For Tom, his hope is to continue to make the science of our human anatomy real and personal by telling his story to the world. He stresses the importance of signing up to be a transplant donor. Tom ends by saying, “I hope students and other people see my story and can relate to it. You can make it through my type of experience.” Not only does this professor have two hearts, he has the heart to share his story.
Mediaman is currently finishing a mini-documentary about Tom Volk. To learn more about Tom, his fungi or health blog go to: http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/