Fate, patience bring DeVos a new heart

Amway cofounder back after journey for life

Detroit Free Press/October 8, 1997
By Doron Levin

Grand Rapids -- The last nine months have been a life-and-death struggle for Rich DeVos, in the deepest sense of those words.

At 5:45 Tuesday afternoon, with a healthy transplanted heart beating in his chest, the 71-year-old cofounder of the Amway Corp. came home.

His 92-year-old mother, Ethel, in a wheelchair, was in Grand Rapids to greet him at Kent County Airport after his flight from Italy. So were Gov. John Engler and hundreds of relatives, friends and well-wishers.

DeVos thanked the crowd "for letting us share our hearts with you. That's the right word, isn't it?"

For the past month, DeVos was recuperating in the western coastal town of Viareggio, Italy, aboard his 125-foot sailboat, Freedom, watching construction of his new 175-foot sailboat, Independence.

Once Independence is completed next summer, DeVos and his wife, Helen, plan a two-year cruise around the world, joined at various times by his four children, their spouses and 13 grandchildren.

"We're a very close family, we do things together and we decide things as a family," said Dan DeVos, 39, Tuesday before his father's arrival. A year ago the DeVos family had a much tougher issue to resolve than which exotic ports to visit: Should Dad keep trying to cheat nature with a failing heart? Or should he go forward with an offer -- one that had been very tough to secure -- to seek a heart transplant in Great Britain?

"His heart was slowly winding down. We watched him progressively losing energy," said Dan DeVos. "Once we got through the initial shock of the offer in London, it really was a family decision. We knew it was all or nothing.... He will make it or he won't."

In 1983, Rich DeVos -- whose net worth Forbes magazine estimates at $2.4 billion -- had a heart-bypass operation and remained in pretty good health until the early 1990s.

In 1992, he had a second bypass, but his heart was failing. Through 1995 and 1996, DeVos' two physicians, a retired surgeon and a Grand Rapids cardiologist, scoured heart-transplant clinics throughout the United States to find one for DeVos.

Dan DeVos said none of the U.S. clinics knew the applicant was the billionaire cofounder of Amway. The clinics only knew the vital statistics: a man in his late 60s with AB positive blood, a rare type, who had already undergone two bypass operations, suffered a debilitating infection, a stroke -- and whose weakened heart might stop at any moment.

Turned down everywhere in this country, the elder DeVos' doctors began to approach transplant clinics overseas. Finally, last fall, Dr. Magdi Yacoub, an Egyptian-born transplant specialist at Harefield Hospital in London, agreed to interview DeVos.

Oddly, DeVos' rare blood type proved an advantage in Britain, his son said. British subjects are given preference for transplants, but a non-Briton with a rare blood type might luck into a donated heart that might otherwise might be wasted.

"He went over there the first week of January to meet Dr. Yacoub," said Dan DeVos. "We also went."

As is the practice of transplant physicians, Dr. Yacoub wanted to make sure the patient had a will to live, discipline to follow the recuperation schedule and a support network of family or friends.

Not surprisingly DeVos, whose exploits in business, motivational selling, Republican politics and philanthropy practically define what it means to be energetic, passed the interview with flying colors.

"He packed his bags and brought them with him to London," said his son. "When he decides to do something he doesn't wait around."

The DeVoses reached London the first week in January and began the wait for the call to say that a donor had been found. The children -- Dick, 41; Dan, 39; Cheri, 36; and Doug, 33 -- "decided that one week out of four, one of us would always be here with Dad," Dan said. Dick and Doug are Amway executives; Dan operates various family and private enterprises; Cheri and her husband Bob Vander Weide live in Orlando, where Bob is an executive with the family's Orlando Magic basketball team.

The children tried restaurants, saw the musicals "Oliver" and "Les Miserables," but everyone could see that the family's patriarch was running out of time.

For several months, almost no one but immediate friends and family knew that Rich DeVos, a beloved public figure in Grand Rapids to many thousand Amway employees and distributors, was in London. The company issued a vaguely worded statement that he was out of the country, waiting for a transplant.

"We knew how this might be misinterpreted by some," said Dan, explaining that the mystery of his location might be misconstrued as an attempt to "buy" an organ in a country that doesn't have the same tight controls as the United States.

In reality, he said, the DeVoses were only trying to head off attention, including visits and phone calls from numerous well-wishers. The family feared any hubbub might be unhealthy for the patient, as well as disruptive to the hospital.

To keep friends informed, Amway set up a telephone hot line with weekly recorded reports by DeVos and a voice-mail box for messages.

By May the waiting, the constant trans-Atlantic trips and tension were taking a toll. "You wait, but the call doesn't come," said Dan DeVos.

Finally, on June 2, an employee from Amway called Dan to say "we might have something." Family members who were in Grand Rapids rushed to the airport to board Amway's 727 for the flight to London.

A victim in a fatal car accident in the Czech Republic was the donor of heart and lungs to a woman with diseased lungs waiting in London for a transplant. Doctors preferred to replace her heart and lungs together.

The woman, in turn, would donate her healthy heart to DeVos. Her heart was particularly strong because it had been working too hard for years due to her weak lungs. As rare as conventional heart transplants are, what unfolded in London in early June was something even rarer: a Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance procedure after which a donor in DeVos' position could legitimately claim: "I'm doing fine, and so's the person who donated my heart."

By the time the airplane from Grand Rapids had landed, the five-hour surgery was done. "We looked in on him and he looked surprisingly good, he had a tan," Dan DeVos recalled.

Through the summer, Rich DeVos remained in London. In September he traveled to Italy.

"While we were waiting for his heart, we helped Dad plan everything connected with his sailing trip," said Dan DeVos. "We wanted to keep him focused on that."

No one knows what twists and turns life holds. A car crashes, someone dies and two others can keep on living. Right now the outlook is pretty good that the DeVos clan will embark on a sailboat trip next year with Grandfather at the helm.

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