Minnesota state troopers escort heart for transplant

"We're just grateful that this happened."

January 17, 2024, 6:02 PM

When Dr. Mauricio Villavicencio, surgical director of the Heart and Lung Transplant Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, realized there was an issue transporting a heart he needed urgently for a heart transplant last October, he jumped into problem-solving mode.

Construction and heavy traffic on the highway that connected the location of the donated heart to the hospital put doctors in a time-pressed scenario.

"Heart transplantation is very time-sensitive," Villavicencio told ABC News.

PHOTO: Body cam footage shows the trooper dropping the box off with medical staff at the hospital after the escort.
Body cam footage shows the trooper dropping the box off with medical staff at the hospital after the escort.
Minnesota State Patrol

Villavicencio said he had heard stories in the hospital about doctors contacting the Minnesota State Patrol for assistance in the past.

"Why don't we just try it?" he recalled thinking.

With help from the Mayo Clinic's communication team, Villavicencio was able to get in touch with Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Mitch Elzen.

After a call with authorities, Villavicencio worked with Minnesota state troopers to organize a police escort for the donor heart from its location in the Twin Cities to the Mayo Clinic.

"It was highly unusual, I think for both of us," said Villavicencio about his call with Elzen. He said despite the initial surprise of the call, the authorities cooperated and executed the plan.

In a statement provided to ABC News, Elzen said, "I had never experienced a call like this, but I knew time was not on our side and we had to act quickly."

John Neuenschwander poses with family after his heart transplant.
John Neuenschwander poses with family after his heart transplant.
Courtesy of Neuenschwander Family

Elzen had the medical staff at the donor heart facility ride along with Trooper Mike Pevear, who happened to be in the area at the time of Villavicencio's call. Pevear then handed the heart off relay-style to Trooper Quintin O'Reilly in a nearby town, who completed the journey to the hospital, where Villavicencio successfully completed the heart transplant.

Once the transplant was complete, Villavicencio said the transplant patient "had a very straightforward recovery."

This month, both state troopers and the lieutenant were able to meet that patient, 73-year-old John Neuenschwander, after he had recovered from his heart transplant, according to the state patrol.

"I'm grateful our troopers were willing to jump into action and get the heart where it needed to be. I know we played just a small role, but to learn Mr. Neuenschwander had a successful surgery and will get more time with his family is something we will never forget," Elzen stated.

Col. Matt Langer, Minnesota State Patrol chief, echoed that sentiment in a statement provided to ABC News.

"Our troopers never know what their next call will be, but they are ready and willing to respond to whatever is needed," said Langer. "One call to dispatch was all it took for the State Patrol team to create an excellent plan and execute it safely. It really goes to show how our troopers go above and beyond to help community members across Minnesota."

According to Villavicencio there were nearly 2,000 organ transplants at the Mayo Clinic last year. "Every transplant counts," he said, adding, "We're just grateful that this happened."