EAU CLAIRE — Gregg Bohlig first noticed something was amiss about five years ago as he walked up the first fairway at Princeton Valley Golf Course.

The former Wisconsin Badgers quarterback, still fit and trim more than 40 years after his playing days ended, got winded walking up the slight incline after hitting his tee shot.

“I thought, ‘What the heck is this? I’m not that old,’ “ Gregg recalled in a recent interview.

In typical fashion for Gregg, a competitive athlete who has excelled at several sports since hanging up his Badgers cleats, his solution was to push through it. The lifelong Eau Claire resident figured he just needed to work out more often.

When that strategy didn’t help, Gregg sought answers from Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, where a flurry of tests revealed he had a rare, incurable heart condition. After pursuing several treatment options, doctors eventually told him the clock was running out and he had only one option left to save his life: a heart transplant.

Gregg, 69, completed his Hail Mary in March at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, making it easy to know what to give thanks for when he sits down to Thanksgiving dinner today with his wife, Barb, their daughter Bethany and their newest grandchild, 6-month-old Rosalie.

“I’m incredibly thankful,” said Gregg, longtime operator of a State Farm insurance agency in Eau Claire. “It’s a whole new opportunity for life that I didn’t think was available.”

Devastating diagnosis

When tests showed that Gregg, who had always been healthy other than a few orthopedic issues resulting from decades of athletics, was suffering from a condition called amyloidosis, it was a shot to the gut. The disease occurs when an abnormal protein, called amyloid, builds up in a person’s organs and interferes with their normal function.

In Gregg, the amyloid attacked only his heart, gradually reducing its effectiveness at pumping blood and oxygen throughout his body, said Dr. Daniel Kincaid, the Mayo Clinic Health System cardiologist who first identified amyloidosis as a possible cause of Gregg’s struggles.

Telling the couple’s three daughters — Amanda, Carrie and Bethany — about his terminal diagosis was one of the toughest things Gregg has ever had to do.

As Gregg’s condition worsened, Barb said, “Anyone who did anything with him — whether it was hunting, going for walks or playing golf — was extremely aware that he had no stamina.”

Gregg recalled a frightening episode in which he woke up one night and felt like he couldn’t breathe. “I felt like I was dying,” he said.

As he navigated his challenges, Gregg recognized he was fortunate to have Barb, a veteran cardiac rehab nurse, at his side for every painful step.

“She was amazing. I clearly won the lottery there,” Gregg said of his wife before adding with a grin, “but I don’t get away with anything either.”

Gregg also drew strength from remembering how bravely his father, Roger, had handled living with a rare form of anemia for the last 15 years of his life.

“What really was an inspiration to me was how my dad lived those last number of years after he got the diagnosis,” Gregg said. “He was always positive, upbeat and ready for any adventure or relationship. He handled it all with such strength and dignity even when he was getting blood transfusions once a week to stay alive.”

Though the prospect of a heart transplant might frighten most people, the Bohligs celebrated when Gregg was approved and placed on the national waiting list for a heart. It offered hope.

His relatively good health and favorable blood type made him a strong transplant candidate, but there were no guarantees he would get a heart in time.

“After 4½ months on the list, nothing had happened and my health was getting worse,” Gregg said. “I was starting to really notice fatigue and shortness of breath. Normal activities were just getting progressively more difficult. I thought I could have just months to live.”

A Mayo Clinic doctor in Rochester advised Gregg to also get on the waiting list for a heart through Mayo Clinic in Arizona and later suggested the Bohligs temporarily move to Arizona, where the chances of a heart becoming available would be greater.

The couple took the advice to heart, packed up the Chrysler Town and Country minivan Gregg jokingly refers to as “the Barbmobile” and drove to Arizona. They arrived in Phoenix on March 10 — with no idea how long they would be staying.

A study of patients on the waiting list for heart transplant at Mayo Clinic in Arizona from 2015 through 2017 showed that 76% received a transplant within three years, 65% within a year and 19% within 30 days.

“We thought it could be three months or it could be a year. We didn’t know,” Gregg said. “And there was no way to know how long I had.”

The call arrives

As it turned out, Gregg’s wait was surprisingly short. The news arrived, appropriately, on the golf course — his sixth straight day of playing after arriving in Arizona. His only real concession to the disease gradually destroying his heart was to take a cart.

It was early evening and Gregg was nearing the green on the 15th hole while golfing with Carrie’s father-in-law, Glen, and buddy Pete Koupal of Rapid City, South Dakota, when his cellphone rang and displayed a number he didn’t recognize. His first thought was that he didn’t know anybody in Arizona, so it must not be for him.

But he answered the call and heard these astonishing words: “Greg, we have a heart for you. We need you to get in here right away.”

It was only a week into a wait he thought could take months or even years — if the call arrived in time at all.

“I kept thinking that moment was way off in the distance. It was just so surreal,” Gregg said. “I didn’t even get to finish my round.”

From the opposite side of the fairway, Koupal saw Gregg pick up the phone and then Glen walked over and shared the good news.

“I’m thinking, ‘OK, let’s get this show on the road,’ but then I see Gregg hang up and drive his cart forward another 30-40 yards. Then he gets out and hits his approach shot onto the green,” Koupal said this week, still astonished at the memory. “I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I just needed to hit one more shot.’ That is typical Gregg Bohlig right there.”

Gregg then called Barb to inform her “It’s go time” before sharing some emotional moments with his playing partners when the reality of the situation hit home.

Minutes later, Koupal, a Regis High School graduate who has been friends with Gregg since the two of them lived three blocks apart as kids in Eau Claire, dropped Gregg off at his hotel and said, “Hey man, this is it.”

As it turned out, slight delays in getting the donor heart to the hospital meant the transplant didn’t take place until the following day, March 17, and the luck o’ the Irish was indeed with him on this most memorable St. Patrick’s Day.

Gregg recalled being wheeled into the operating room that morning and being mesmerized by all of the machines and the whirlwind of activity. The next thing he knew it was 13 hours later.

“I woke up at 11 o’clock that night and thought, ‘Oh my God, I wonder if I have my new heart,’ “ he said.

The dream had come true. Surgeons had cut open Gregg’s chest, placed him on the heart-lung bypass machine, removed his diseased heart that the surgeon told him looked like a deflated medicine ball and replaced it with the heart of a donor.

At 10 a.m. the next day, Koupal’s phone indicated he had a call from Gregg. Koupal wondered who was calling him on his friend’s phone. It was Gregg himself.

Once again, Koupal asked, “What are you doing? Less than 24 hours ago you got a new heart.”

Gregg replied, “I’m feeling great.”

Pushing the limits

Despite the literal change of heart, he tackled post-surgical rehabilitation with his usual vengeance.

It’s exactly what those who know Gregg would expect from a man who has been known for being all-in at everything since his days as a three-sport star at Eau Claire Memorial High School, where he was state player of the year and a Gatorade All-American in football, a second team all-state guard in basketball and was offered a contract by the St. Louis Cardinals to play shortstop in baseball. When he took up running, he completed 10 marathons, with his best time of 2:49:34 fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. He also became a highly competitive tennis player.

As a golfer, he plays nearly every day in the summer and is known for routinely showing up more than an hour early to work on his short game.

“Who does that? Gregg does,” said Koupal, whose wife, Patti, sewed Gregg a heart-shaped Badgers pillow with his old No. 14 on it that he could hug to ease the pain of post-surgical coughs.

In the hospital, Gregg, who had pushed himself to be as active as possible to get his legs and lungs in the best shape he could before surgery, was up walking the day after his transplant.

“I think it was his third day post-op when he asked the staff if he could try the stairs,” Barb said. “For him to be able to do two or three flights of stairs while still in the hospital was a good validator that his heart was doing better.”

The Bohligs started walking 2 miles a day outside as soon he got out of the hospital — just 13 days after his operation. Shortly thereafter, Gregg hiked to the top of a well-known rock formation in Phoenix, prompting a proud Barb to declare to other hikers, “I just have to tell you all that my husband just had heart transplant surgery three weeks ago.”

Kincaid, the Eau Claire cardiologist, said there is no doubt Gregg’s fitness helped speed his recovery, adding, “One of my problems in taking care of him was to keep him for overexerting.”

His only noteworthy setback came about two weeks after his discharge when he woke up with his entire lower body in pain and barely able to walk. The frightening condition, diagnosed as both gout and pseudogout, required him to have fluid drained from his feat and ankles. It cleared up in a few days.

Still, Gregg kept asking doctors when he could return to golfing. Eventually, they relented, giving him permission to practice his short game.

The patient also repeatedly asked his health care providers if it would be possible to shave a month off his planned three-month recovery time in Arizona so he and Barb could return to Eau Claire in time for the birth of their middle daughter’s first child. Impressed with his progress after multiple checkups per week, doctors eventually granted Gregg permission to go home a month early and continue his followup care at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

“By the time we left Phoenix, he was chipping and putting almost every day,” Barb said with a chuckle.

Unknown donor

Through it all, Gregg knows nothing about the source of the heart that now beats in his chest other than that it came from a deceased male donor.

The Bohligs have expressed an interest in connecting with the donor’s family through an organization that serves as an intermediary between the families of donors and recipients, but the ultimate decision rests with the other family.

“We are hopeful to have an opportunity to thank that family,” Gregg said, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts.

“It’s a weird thing to have a medical miracle for you be the result of a tragedy for someone else,” he said. “I went from feeling like I didn’t have long to live to now knowing some people have lived with a heart transplant for 20 years or more.”

That dynamic, Barb agreed, added to the emotion attached to getting the call they’d been awaiting.

“It’s hard because you know that in your joy someone else is grieving,” Barb said.

While both Barb and Gregg long have designated their desire to be organ donors on their driver’s licenses, the concept always seemed far removed from their everyday reality. Gregg’s experience this year made the importance hit home in a way they never previously imagined.

“Obviously, we’re strong advocates for organ donation,” said Barb, who previously had seen the relief of organ recipients only through her work. “It really can save lives.”

Since the launch of Mayo Clinic’s heart transplant program in 1988, its surgeons have performed more than 1,600 of the procedures in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida. Gregg is one of nearly 500 patients to receive a new heart at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

Stirring comeback

While Gregg still is bothered by some surgical side effects — occasional brain fog and tremors — doctors have advised him those should fade away within a year. He will, however, be required to take anti-rejection medications for the rest of his life to help his body accept the new heart.

In the meantime, he has been able to return to the roles he loves: husband, father, grandfather, business owner and athlete.

“Between here and Rochester and Arizona, Mayo definitely saved my life,” Gregg said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that they can take out your old heart and give you a new one. I’m really thankful to be alive in this day and age when medical technology has advanced as far as it has.

“It makes you feel really blessed. God is good and gracious.”

To show his appreciation, Gregg said, “I’m trying hard not to screw it up,” meaning he’s dedicated to eating right, exercising and taking extra care to avoid COVID-19 because his medications likely have knocked out much of the protection he received from vaccinations.

Friends, family and his State Farm staff have been unbelievably supportive throughout his health care journey, Gregg said, giving him yet another reason to be thankful on this holiday.

A relieved and grateful Barb summed up Gregg’s progress this way: “I think he’s doing really well.”

Koupal, who played golf with Gregg all four times he visited Eau Claire since the transplant, said the improvement in Gregg’s health from a couple years ago when he needed to rest after a 30-yard walk is stunning.

It’s a comeback even more remarkable than his Badgers career highlight in 1974 when he fired a last-minute, 77-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Mack that defeated fourth-ranked Nebraska 21-20 in leading the team to its first winning season in 11 years.

In a sign that his latest comeback is nearly complete, Gregg earlier this month traveled to South Dakota for a five-day pheasant hunting trip with Koupal and four other friends.

“You could tell he was a little tired at the end of the day, but he walked every field,” Koupal said. “He wasn’t missing a lick.”