Sue Huff, shown in a photograph taken in 2003, has been battling illness this year but continues to be a fighter as the longest-living successful heart transplant recipient in the state. Huff, Baxter, received her heart in 1978.
Brainerd Dispatch/File Photo
When Jhonna Loftis gets discouraged, she can look to her own great-aunt for inspiration.
Sue Huff, Baxter, became Minnesota's first successful heart transplant recipient in 1978 at age 34. Now, nearly 28 years later, Huff remains a fighter.
While she's been suffering from ongoing health problems this year, Huff said Thursday she feels fortunate.
"It's been a rough year but life goes on," said Huff. "You get to a certain point in your life and you expect that. It's life."
Huff is thrilled about her great-niece's successful heart transplant Nov. 29. She recalls the period after her own transplant when her health began to return.
"What a difference. You certainly are alive again," said Huff. "What a wonderful thing. I couldn't wait to just wear regular clothes and be out in the world. It was a miracle. I definitely feel like a walking miracle all these years. I've been very fortunate."
Through prayers and encouragement, Huff hopes to bounce back from her current health struggles.
"I've beat the odds before so you never know," said Huff.
Huff's healthiest period was probably two or three years after the transplant. At one point in recent years she was suffering from infections and massive kidney failure and was flown to the Twin Cities by helicopter and placed on a respirator for 36 hours. Through it all, Huff said she has never pitied herself. Her faith in God and positive attitude has helped immensely in her life.
Six years after Huff's transplant, her brother, the late Ken Wasnie, underwent his own successful heart transplant. If there's anyone who understands the complexities - and heartache - associated with genetic heart disease, it's Ken's widow, Genny Wasnie, Brainerd.
Jhonna Loftis, 21, said she feels incredible after receiving her new heart Nov. 29. Recent biopsies show her body is not rejecting her new heart at all as her health continues to improve each day.Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist
Wasnie has watched her children and husband suffer and die of genetic heart disease. She said her faith also helped get her and her family through it all. She said her husband, Ken, thanked God every day for his new heart, which he received in 1984 at age 46. He died in 2002.
"We got 18 years," Genny Wasnie said, of her husband's time after his heart transplant. "Eighteen years we never would have had. We never dreamed we'd get that many."
The Wasnie family's genetic heart disease is characterized by an extra thick heart. The heart muscle isn't formed as it should be. It grows stiff and doesn't beat properly, Wasnie explained. This causes mini-electrical problems in the heart.
Marie (Gaboury) Wasnie, the mother of Sue and Ken, died of genetic heart disease at age 43, when Sue was 12. Marie Wasnie also had two brothers who suffered from heart disease. Nick Wasnie, Marie's husband, played with the Montreal Canadiens when they won Stanley Cup championships in 1929-30 and 1930-31. He later settled in Brainerd and owned a grocery store at 14th and Oak streets.
Marie and Nick Wasnie had four children: Ken, who was a center on the 1954 Brainerd High School state championship basketball team; Sue Huff; Father Blane Wasnie, who does not suffer from heart disease; and Laurence, who died suddenly while playing on the playground at St. Francis School when he was 13 because of genetic heart disease.
Ken and Genny Wasnie had five children. Two daughters, Sheila Wasnie Haverkamp and Angela Kruchten, both of Baxter, do not have a heart condition. But two sons and a daughter all suffered from genetic heart disease. Jonathan, Jhonna's father, died suddenly at age 19 while his brother, Michael, died at 29. Their sister, Ranae, has the same genetic condition and suffered a stroke during heart surgery a couple of years ago. She lives with Genny Wasnie, who cares for her daughter.
Jon Wasnie died suddenly on March 4, 1984, while playing ice softball. He was a wonderful son, said Genny Wasnie. At the time he was caring for the entire family because Ken Wasnie was so sick. A week before he suddenly died, Genny Wasnie told her parents that she wouldn't know what she would do if she didn't have Jon. When Jon died, the family was only able to donate his eyes. Genny is a firm believer in organ donation.
Later that year on June 20, 1984, Ken Wasnie received his new heart.
Of Genny and Ken Wasnie's nine grandchildren, only two of them - Jhonna Loftis and Ranae's 22-year-old son, Justin Mitchell, inherited the genetic heart condition. Mitchell's heart condition hasn't been as symptomatic as Loftis'.
"We are so blessed," Genny Wasnie said of her family. "I'm not saying a lot of days it hasn't been hard. When you lose your kids and you watch your husband suffer, it's very hard. But we're very close. We love each other."
Dawn Hines, Jhonna's mother, said she is grateful for the Wasnie family. Ever since Jhonna's father died when she was three months pregnant with her, they have been there for her and Jhonna, also accepting her husband, Don, and their 16-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, into their family. Genny Wasnie considers Kaitlyn to be one of her grandchildren.
"They are always so generous," Hines said of the Wasnie family. "I've said this from Day One. I've never met a family like this before in my life. They are the neatest family ever. After that much tragedy, they have a lot of faith and love. I'm thankful for them. I wish things were different for them."
Genny Wasnie said she can't wait for Christmas. Her family, including Jhonna and her husband, Luke, will be at her house for dinner.
"It's our gift for Christmas, I tell you, our gift from God," Wasnie said of Jhonna's new heart. "She's just a baby, God love her. She's a sweetheart."
JODIE TWEED can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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