ANGOLA — After a five-year battle with his failing heart, Fremont native Tracy “Dude” Gary received a heart transplant in 2018 that literally beat the life back into his body.
Now, four years later, he and his wife Holly Werlein-Gary, a 16-year liver transplant survivor, are raising money to establish the Transplant House of West Michigan and help others on their journey with organ transplants.
The house, a nonprofit program, will provide a place for transplant recipients and family members to stay while going through the transplant and left-ventricular assist device processes.
Travel expenses between medical facilities can add up quickly for transplant recipients, and Holly drew inspiration from the tolling six-hour drives she would have to make to her facility in Michigan from her home in Ohio for follow-ups after her transplant.
“She always had the vision of having a transplant house because the cost is just outrageous for the patients and families,” Dude said. “It’s the best way we can pay it forward.”
Funding for the project began in February 2021, and the Garys have been hard at work since raising money and searching for the right location for their facility.
The goal is $350,000 to get the house on its feet, and so far, $124,700 has been raised thanks to donations from individuals and medical organizations.
The Garys are looking to establish the house within two miles of Spectrum Health Hospital services in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The hospital has temporary living accommodations for transplant recipients, but Dude said that they are always full.
The Transplant House would provide another option for recipients and receive financial assistance from Spectrum Health to do so. Recipients would only need to pay $50 a night to stay at the house, but even that cost could be waived in the face of financial hardship.
The Children’s Organ Transplant Association out of Bloomington has donated $2,500 to the Transplant House and agreed to a partnership to provide further funding. The Transplant House will receive $500 a year from COTA, and any recipients aged 25 or younger who stay at the house will be eligible to have their costs covered by COTA.
The Garys have also been volunteers for Gift of Life Michigan, a nonprofit organization involved in organ and tissue donation, and have been working to secure funding with them as well.
The couple is currently searching for a grant writer to assist in their fundraising efforts.
“We’ve just been plugging away trying to get funding,” Dude said. “We want to get this out there, and we want to help people.”
While the Transplant House is their first nonprofit, Dude and Holly have been active volunteers and donors to other nonprofits and individuals, such as Olivia Stoy of Angola.
Stoy was diagnosed with T lymphoblastic lymphoma in 2016 at the age of 12, and after much fundraising and support from community members and donors like the Garys, she was able to cover the cost of a bone marrow transplant from her brother, Preston Stoy, in 2018 and has since recovered.
Dude has also adjusted well since his heart transplant in 2018, but it wasn’t always steady at first.
He initially had to take 29 pills in the morning and 15 at night to help keep his body from rejecting the new organ, a small price compared to the difficulties his original heart had given him.
In September 2013, Dude suffered from a heart attack he had no idea he was having, and he would come to learn that it was the third time that had happened.
Dude had been going about his usual routine — even running 7 miles the day before — when he started feeling worse for the weather and opted for a blood pressure check. It was found that he was actively having a heart attack, so he went to the hospital and ended up having quadruple bypass surgery.
“I didn’t know I was having a heart attack,” Dude said. “I was working with 8-10% of my heart function at that time.”
He said the only reason he survived was due to a health defect that caused his heart to have an extra vessel that was still pumping. With the blockages in his other arteries — including the “widowmaker” being blocked from 80-100% — there was a good chance he’d have died during the attack.
Dude went on to have multiple strokes and three LVADs put into his heart. He had gone onto the heart transplant waiting list, but as time went on and the pumps clotted multiple times and all the surgeries began to take a toll on his body, he considered taking himself off.
On May 4, 2018, he finally got the call that a heart was available for him, and the next day he had a new heartbeat.
Dude had met Holly during one of his visits to the hospital, and after recovering from his transplant, the couple started donating to various causes like Stoy’s and cultivating their vision for the Transplant House.
For more information or to donate to the Transplant House, visit mitransplanthouse.org/.