DeVos gets a new heart

Billionaire founder of Amway beat odds

Free Press/June 4, 1997
By Patricia Anstett

Did money buy Richard DeVos a heart?

DeVos, the 71-year-old founder of Amway Corp. and one of the country's richest men, was recovering Tuesday at a London hospital from a heart transplant operation Monday, according to a statement released by his family Tuesday.

DeVos waited five months for his new heart -- half the average time a person in Michigan waits for a heart transplant.

DeVos owns the Orlando Magic basketball team. Last fall, Forbes magazine listed DeVos as the 23rd richest American, estimating his wealth at $3.2 billion.

He went to London after checking out his U.S. options and concluding that "his chance of qualifying for a heart transplant in the United States was about zero," said a close associate. The associate asked not to be named, citing the DeVos family's preference for privacy in the last year as word grew that DeVos was seeking out medical centers worldwide that specialized in heart transplants.

"Money didn't buy him a heart in America," the associate said.

DeVos had assembled a medical team, headed by his Grand Rapids cardiologist, Dr. Luis Tomatis, to check out options for a heart transplant, here and abroad. "The strong conclusion was that London was his best chance," the associate said.

Tomatis was out of the country and unavailable Tuesday for comment. The Amway Corp., which DeVos cofounded in 1959 with Jay Van Andel as a household-cleaning-products firm, would not disclose the name of the medical center where DeVos had his operation.

Doctors had told DeVos that his heart was pumping at less than 20 percent of its capacity, the associate said.

The vibrant, positive man who once visited 16 cities in a week spent much of the last year in bed, exhausted, the associate said.

Devos has had two heart bypass operations -- factors that also made him a less-than-optimal candidate for a heart transplant.

The DeVos family has given large sums of money to the American Heart Association, said the associate, and "his spiritualism and passion for life inspires many" -- factors that may have convinced British doctors to believe he was a good candidate.

DeVos' age was perhaps the major stumbling block. Many centers won't accept patients 60 or older, fearing they will die in the first year of the operation or suffer serious complications.

Nationwide, only 6 percent of the U.S. patients to receive heart transplants were 65 or older in 1995, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit organization. Fifty-two percent of the heart recipients were aged 50-64.

"It is unusual for a 71-year-old man to be placed on the heart transplant list in the United States," said Dr. Keith Aaronson, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center.

Non-U.S. citizens are eligible for U.S. organs, but UNOS, the monitoring agency, limits a center's procedures for nonresidents to no more than 5 percent.

In the United States, money only gets people so far. They can be listed at more than one U.S. transplant program per region, but must be evaluated by each program.

Transplant surgery costs $122,601, according to one 1994 study. But costs may be double that if a person is hospitalized prior to surgery.

Wealthy people may travel around the country looking for centers to take them, Aaronson said. "That's the extent, in the U.S., that money would do anything for you. But you can't buy a heart. If you try and corrupt the system, you'd have to corrupt a whole lot of people."

Abroad, patients face other problems: similar shortages of hearts, refusal of insurance plans to pay for care and varying standards of care. Two-thirds of all transplants worldwide are performed in the United States.

Dr. Robert Higgins, a transplant surgeon at Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital, said age is increasingly a factor in candidate selection because congestive heart failure -- a disease in which the heart fails to pump at full capacity -- primarily affects people over 60 and there are few good options.

He estimated that only one of Ford's 15 heart transplant patients last year was 60 or older.

But only 2,342 people got heart transplants in the United States last year, compared to nearly three times the number waiting for organs.

In Michigan, 72 people were waiting for a heart as of May 1, according to Gift of Life, the state's organ procurement agency. Last year, the average wait was 317 days, though one person waited just one day and another waited nearly 2,000.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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