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90-year-old farmer thrives with pig heart valve

By JR Ortega
Feb. 9, 2012 at midnight
Updated Feb. 12, 2012 at 8:13 p.m.

Joseph Yaklin, 90, received an aortic heart valve replacement about 16 years ago and is still driving tractors for the Martin-O'Connor Cattle Company in Tivoli. The pig valve he received was only supposed to last 7 to 10 years, but Yaklin is still going strong. His wife said that the doctor calls him his "miracle patient."

The Advocate asked readers for stories from the heart, about the heart. We received several submissions and some of the others can be read on page E6.

TIVOLI - On the far western outskirts of Tivoli, a slow-moving tractor churns fertilizer, raking straight rows up and down what seems like never-ending farmland.

Behind the humming beast of a machine is 90-year-old Joseph Yaklin, a gangly man, squinting from the sunlight that reflects in the brown dirt on the dust-ridden tractor windshield.

At less than 10 years shy of 100, Yaklin working the field is an amazing feat; but even more amazing is that the Texas native isn't missing a beat thanks to the aortic heart valve of a pig.

The heart condition

In 1995, Yaklin was not feeling so well. During a visit with his doctor, he learned that his heart was not functioning at its full power.

Yaklin was in need of an aortic heart valve replacement. He visited Dr. William Campbell, in Victoria, and underwent the valve replacement with a biological transplant of a pig valve.

The more common type of replacement today is mechanical, but biological replacements also still exist, but don't last as long.

"Apparently, it was a really healthy pig," Yaklin's wife, Joyce, said with a quick laugh. The biological replacement is given a life span of 7-10 years, but Yaklin has surpassed that by almost 6 more years.

He receives checkups every six months and is on medication for blood pressure and cholesterol. He also watches his diet.

But other than that, his once nearly-fatal heart condition has not stopped him from taking to the fields.

"It's unbelievable, honestly," his wife said.

Keeping the true heart alive

The wind sweeping across the plains off Farm-to-Market Road 239 creates a constant pitch-changing melody.

"It looks like we could have a shower here before long," Yaklin said with a slight South Texas twang, as he looked to the sky.

Today, Yaklin continues to be just as active as he was prior to his valve replacement. He works when and where he is needed at the Martin O'Connor Cattle Company.

As much as the valve replacement has saved his life, Yaklin's wife really believes being out on a tractor is what has really kept him alive.

So, if you're ever looking for Yaklin, you know where to find him - though he claims he does not work nearly as much as he used to.

"I work less and less all the time," he said. For 35 years, Yaklin worked the crops in the summer, and he'd grind it in the winter.

But with age, he has taken it down a notch. Now, he repairs farming and ranching equipment or rides the tractors just to cultivate the earth for future harvests.

He laughs when his wife notes that he has been seen by many as the one who can make the straightest rows on the field.

Yaklin said with today's satellite technology, a tractor can practically drive itself; but he continues going off his own knowledge.

"I just think about what I'm doing," he said.

And the beat goes on

Being on a tractor is something Yaklin has been doing since he was 15.

His father was a carpenter and a farmer, but as his father became more involved in his carpentry, Yaklin took over the farm.

As an elementary school student, Yaklin can recall sitting in a non-air conditioned classroom, but the sound of a tractor humming in the distance always made him want to leave.

Yaklin decided high school was not for him - his classroom was the farm.

"I got my education on a tractor," he said. "I learned how to farm. I couldn't learn that in school."

Yaklin cannot sit still, his wife said. He even works the garden and mows his own grass at their home in Tivoli, she said.

There are times when he is out in the field beginning at 7 a.m. until about 4 p.m., working on the nearly 2,000 acres of farmland.

For him, there is just something about being out on the tractor. Perhaps it's the open fields, or maybe even the light, non-stop wind that makes you feel you're somehow floating.

Whatever it is, it's something Yaklin's wife said she could never take away from him.

"I couldn't have stopped him from coming out here. This is what he loves," she said. "Tractors are his toys. Isn't it wonderful to still be able to play with your toys when you're 90?"



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