Erin’s parents celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in 1995
At Christmas 2000, my father shared a story with me that caught my attention. It related to his stay in New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital during the summer of 1992, where he recovered from a heart transplant operation. As a writer, I am always on the hunt for story ideas. I had been thinking about writing about my father’s transplant experience, but somehow, work and the hectic pace of living in New York got in the way. Or so I told myself.
About a decade before, I had prepared myself mentally for my father to pass away. I watched his weight slip to 150 pounds (he was 6’2”), and noticed he had trouble standing for more than five minutes at a time. He slept propped on four pillows to be able to breathe more easily. Cardiomyopathy was the illness that gripped him. It was so severe that his doctor gave him a month to live if he did not receive a transplant. Then one day, miraculously, he did.
I occasionally read about organ transplants in the newspaper. Report after report chronicles the organ shortage in this country and the scary lack of donors. Depressing statistics. I always end up thinking, “How did my father get so lucky?”
Then at Christmas, Dad told me about his recovery in the hospital and his encounter with a man who didn’t want to receive a new organ. In fact, he was almost kicking and screaming to get out of the hospital, away from his gift of life. That held my attention.
Here’s what happened:
A week after my father’s procedure, a head nurse walked over to his bed and said, “I need you to talk to a man who is very upset — he is about to receive a new heart. It will be here any moment; it’s being transported by ambulance from Queens.”
Dad was somewhat groggy from his transplant but listened. The nurse continued, “Joe is saying he cannot go through with the operation. I want you to give him a pep talk about the procedure.”
Dad agreed, and the nurse wheeled in Joe, a man in his early 30s, and situated him next to my father’s bed. Joe was on the verge of hysteria. “Joe, what’s wrong?” Dad asked.
“I can’t go through with this operation. It’s too much for me to endure. I may not live through it,” he replied.
My father tried to calm his nerves: “Now is not the time to panic. This will be an easy procedure; you have nothing to fear — you could be out of the hospital in 10 days. I got my new heart last week and feel great.”
Initially hysterical, Joe calmed down. “Listen, mister, I appreciate what you’re telling me, but I am not ready. I have a wife and kids, who is going to support them if I am gone?”
“Joe,” my father countered, “this is a once in a lifetime chance for you to get your life back. If you walk away now, you could wait 10 to 15 months for another heart. Do you really want to take that chance? Your body may not be able to wait that long.”
Sadly, Joe did not change his mind. The nurse retrieved him, and he passed on receiving a new heart. My father tried his best, to no avail.
Erin and her daughters vacationing with her parents in Grand Cayman in 2015
The bottom line was that Joe had no mental preparation for the seriousness of his illness and the transplantation process. Joe admitted that he had not attended any of Columbia Presbyterian’s educational support meetings. He suffered emotionally as a result. He had little faith in God and the power of prayer.
Nationwide, hospitals that perform organ transplants recommend people waiting for new organs attend a series of support meetings prior to their life-altering procedures. These meetings, conducted by hospital doctors, nurses and support staff, address the common questions people have about transplantation and what they can expect pre-and post-transplant.
My father, diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in January 1991, knew he was in for the fight of his life. Upon diagnosis, he started attending the hospital’s weekly support meetings with my mother, and sometimes myself. Most importantly, he prayed for the miracle of new life.
Doctors prepared him physically and emotionally for the long wait ahead. Given the shortage of organ donations, and the fact that he had the rarest blood type, my father knew that the odds were against him, and there was a likely chance he would not receive a new heart in time.
How did he prepare so intently? In addition to attending the hospital educational seminars, Dad got his church and community involved for support, and prayed daily. On July 29, 1992, he finally got his call, and my family rushed him over to the city hospital at 3 a.m.
After the transplant, my father dealt with some strong feelings. He got very emotional when he found out that his new heart was from a 13-year-old boy from central New Jersey, who was in a head-on auto collision. He thought of the stolen hopes and dreams of the young boy whose heart now beat inside of him, and the life that would never be led.
Dad realized that his procedure was a miracle and was profoundly grateful to God for his second chance at life. While his transplant was a success, it was not free of complications. His life was forever altered as a result of this operation, but I like to think that it was for the better.
As president of The Gift of Life, Columbia Presbyterian’s heart and lung transplant support group, Dad helped hundreds of people by educating and supporting them through their wait for new organs and in post-transplant recovery. He made a new group of friends, people who had gone through the same ordeal and who continued to struggle with the organ donation experience and their own issues about faith.
Tireless in energy, my father ran different events for New York transplant recipients and their families. One of the most popular was an annual picnic held on a Sunday in September at a state park overlooking the Hudson River. At least a hundred people turned out for this event. Every year I went to this picnic and witnessed many people meet for the first time and bond over common troubles and triumphs. The day was a great way for many city dwellers to breathe some fresh country air.
There’s a lesson to be learned from my father’s story. Be prepared for the curve balls that life will throw you and pray to God for help. You don’t have to go it alone. If you face a health crisis, use all your courage and strength to fight the illness. Turn to a forgiving and omnipresent God above, and don’t forget to include others in your life for support — your family, friends and individuals that share the same battle.