Minnesota State Patrol helps make speedy delivery, escorting heart to Mayo Clinic

In October, a heart became available in the Twin Cities for heart transplant patient John Neuenschwander at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. When his surgeon feared road construction might delay the organ's arrival, he called the Minnesota State Patrol for help.

As a young man, John Neuenschwander dreaded seeing flashing lights in his rearview mirror. Several decades later, his reaction is different.

When he sees those lights now, he thinks, "Thank God," John tells KARE 11.

John's change of heart is understandable.

In October 2023, he was lying in an operating room at Mayo Clinic waiting for a new heart. It was a gift he'd been waiting for many years to receive.

But the heart was in the Twin Cities, and John was 70 or so miles away in Rochester.

His surgeon, Mauricio Villavicencio, M.D., was ready to perform the transplant. But Dr. Villavicencio, director of Mayo's heart/lung transplant program, was worried that road construction might present a roadblock.

The path down Highway 52 had several lengthy construction zones.

So Dr. Villavicencio — who has performed more than 300 heart transplants — did something he'd never done before. He called in the police.

"Time was of the essence," Dr. Villavicencio tells KARE 11. "I was afraid to have a poor outcome, obviously."

Time was of the essence. I was afraid to have a poor outcome.

Mauricio Villavicencio, M.D.

Lt. Mitch Elzen of the Minnesota State Patrol answered Dr. Villavicencio's call.

"It's definitely a new one for me," Elzen tells KARE 11. "Time wasn't on our side. They needed the heart down there ASAP. We didn't have flights available; we didn't have — basically, we had cars."

Elzen put those cars into motion. State trooper Mike Pavear was the first driver in a relay that would deliver the precious cargo to Rochester.

Pavear and Joe Groteboer, a Mayo Clinic cardiothoracic transplant specialist who was there to transport the organ, headed down Highway 52 with red lights blazing.

"Speeds ranged from 80 to 100, just depending on cars and stuff," Pavear tells KARE 11. "Everyone yielded and moved to the shoulder."

Near Zumbrota, he passed the baton — and heart — to Quentin O'Reilly, an officer from the Rochester district of the State Patrol. And with lights and siren blaring, O'Reilly and Groteboer arrived at Mayo Clinic. Groteboer quickly delivered the heart to the operating room.

"As soon as I implanted the heart, it started beating very strongly," Dr. Villavicencio tells KARE 11.

Several months after his transplant, John is doing well. He's recovering at the Gift of Life Transplant House in Rochester, where he recently welcomed two special visitors: the officers who transported his new heart.

"Thank you doesn't really cut it," John said as he shook the officers' hands.

You can watch John's story — including the reunion — in this KARE 11 video: