For the first time since he received an artificial heart 252 days ago, William J. Schroeder returned today to Jasper, making a brief, emotional visit to his home and riding in the town's annual German-heritage parade.
After traveling the 90 miles from Humana Hospital Audubon in Louisville, Schroeder was greeted by hundreds of cheering neighbors, relatives, police and hospital staff members and a phalanx of reporters and cameras.
Schroeder, who has suffered two strokes since his heart implant Nov. 25, appeared dazed as relatives wheeled him from his specially equipped van and gestured toward the two-story house he grew up in. "At first he didn't totally realize what was going on, where he was, with all the people around him," his son Mel told reporters. "But then he realized he was home."
Once inside, Schroeder, 53, wept and said, "We're at home, we're at home," his son recalled.
After sharing a meal with family and a few friends, Schroeder got back in his van to lead Jasper's seventh annual Strassenfest parade, which wound through the central square of this southern Indiana town of about 10,000 residents.
Dr. William DeVries, the surgeon who headed up the team that replaced Schroeder's diseased heart with a plastic-and-aluminum Jarvik-7 pump, was on hand to serve as grand marshal. Schroeder was driven back to the Humana hospital immediately after the parade.
At a news conference today, DeVries said he expects to discharge Schroeder to an apartment across the street from the Louisville hospital within a week and that he hopes his patient can return to Jasper for longer periods.
Schroeder was moved to the specially outfitted apartment in April, but suffered his second stroke there a month later and had to be rehospitalized.
During a televised interview in December, when Schroeder was enjoying a remarkable recovery from surgery, he invited the world to join him at Strassenfest.
But on Dec. 13, a massive stroke led to a series of complications and setbacks. Schroeder's speech and memory were damaged and he suffered occasional seizure-like episodes.
In January he had a two-week fever. For months, he was fed through a nasal tube because he had difficulty swallowing. Since his operation, he has spent most of his time in bed or in a wheelchair.
In early April, Schroeder and his wife, Margaret, moved to the apartment near the hospital. His second stroke left him weak, initially unable to talk and with a limited awareness of his surroundings.
Doctors had called his neurological problems "severe" and offered little hope for improvements. But Schroeder seems to be bouncing back. He now speaks in phrases and can walk, with assistance, the length of a city block.
In July, he was taken to a Louisville Redbirds minor-league baseball game. DeVries said that doctors are somewhat "baffled" by Schroeder's surprising recovery.
Two of DeVries' three other artificial-heart patients died before ever leaving the hospital. The third, Murray P. Haydon, remains in intensive care at Humana nearly five months after his implant. Haydon, 59, of Louisville, has had respiratory problems since a March operation to stem internal bleeding caused by blood-thinning drugs used to prevent strokes.
DeVries disclosed today that Haydon has been battling pneumonia and requires a respirator at night and several hours each day.
Schroeder's friends and neighbors welcomed him home today as a hero, with yellow ribbons and storefront signs proclaiming "Welcome Home, Bionic Bill." About 12,000 people lined the parade route, some sitting on front-porch swings or lawn chairs, for a glimpse of Schroeder.
DeVries has also endeared himself to the townspeople. The world famous surgeon arrived here Friday, played volleyball with the locals and happily took several spills in a dunking booth.
Neighbors praised Schroeder's pioneering contribution to science, also noted by one float in the parade, which carried a sign reading: "Your life will be greater because of Bill Schroeder."
Mayor Jerome Alles said, "I don't know the word in German to describe Bill Schroeder, but I know what it is in English: 'Good plain old guts.' "