Tony Shepard was 16 in 1985 when he became a recipient of a Utah program's first heart transplant.

Twelve years after the operation that saved Shepard's life, that program has just completed its 650th heart transplant.The UTAH (Utah Area Transplantation Affiliated Hospitals) Cardiac Transplant Program has grown to be one of the most successful in the country, with survival rates far exceeding the national average. Nationally, the five-year survival rate for heart transplants is 60 percent. In Utah, it is 75 percent, according to 1995 statistics.

The 10-year survival rate is 40 percent nationally. In Utah, 62 percent of heart recipients live at least 10 years.

Transplant recipients paid tribute to the program and its success during a ceremony at the Little America Hotel Saturday night.

"I never doubted the transplant was going to work," said Bill Riley, who had a transplant in 1993. "Thank you very much for the gift of life you've given us."

Kally Heslop had a heart attack due to complications during child birth. She had a heart transplant at University Hospital in February of 1989.

"I was very fortunate to live in Utah, where the transplant program is No. 1 in the world," she said. "People from all over the U.S. come to Utah because of its reputation."

Heslop also thanked the families of the heart donors. Many recipients who were at the ceremony would not be alive if it weren't for the donors, she said. Heslop lives in Kaysville with her four children and husband.

The transplant program is a joint effort among four Salt Lake hospitals - LDS Hospital, University Hospital, Primary Children's Medical Center and the Veterans Administration Hospital.

The program has been successful because of the hard work and dedication of its personal, said Dr. Dale Renlund, who is the transplant program's medical director. Renlund has been involved with the program shortly after it started in 1985.

Though the program has the highest success rate in the country, it is not perfect, Renlund said.

"We don't want to stop until it's perfect in terms of survival rate and in quality of life," he said.