and why I encourage you to be a donor. This is a short story about how an anonymous heart donor saved my life.
I had always led a reasonably healthy life, exercising, skiing, rollerblading, hiking, biking, eating healthy foods, and very little "junk food." I worked in elementary school for twenty years, teaching mostly third, fourth, and sixth grades. I wrote articles on education for professional journals and countless letters to the editor on education and other social issues.
Thus it came as quite a shock when, at age 57, I learned I had heart problems. A pacemaker solved them for two years, but then, for reasons still unknown, my heart swelled to the size of a grapefruit. My cardiologist announced that I had "cardiomyopathy," a general term covering heart disease that is usually chronic and of unknown origin. It took me six months to realize that I had effectively gone from age 57 to age 97, in terms of my physical abilities.
In retrospect, the doctors believe I may have had a viral infection called sarcoidosis, which is quite rare and has different effects for different people (lumps of cells or fibrous tissue appear on the skin or internal organs, sometimes for a short while, sometimes intermittently, sometimes forever).
I was teaching sixth grade in November 2004, when in the middle of a math class, it became apparent that I was unable to remember kids' names, or to do simple math problems on the board. I realized I was not getting enough oxygen to my brain, and told my principal that I needed to go home or to the hospital. He offered to drive me, I said no, and made it home, where I went to sleep for several hours. Keeping a long story short, that was the last day of my official teaching career.
I had to climb stairs one at a time; I depended on my immediate family in something resembling a vegetative state. I had to struggle for five minutes to get up off the floor after watching a video, one of the few activities I could engage in. I spent hours laying in bed, trying to read (many books were on philosophy, death, and dying). I was seriously contemplating how to end my own life, as I could see no sense in living like this and being a burden to those around me (I believe that my Catholic background and fear of further hurting those around me are about all that kept me from actually acting on my downward spiraling thoughts).
At one point I decided that refusing the beta-blocker which supposedly kept me alive, but that was slowing me down even further, was better than continuing with it. Without telling my doctor, I stopped for close to two weeks, before deciding to consult another cardiologist, who was more attuned to my condition and things I was saying. He tried different beta-blockers, and we found one that diminished side-effects. He also put me in the hospital over the course of two separate weeks, trying drugs that could only be used in a hospital setting.
Finally, however, he announced that he had exhausted all the tricks of the trade he knew, and that I needed a new heart. As he did not perform that operation, he sent me to the LDS Hospital. He introduced me to the doctors there, whom he knew well. In short order, I was checked into that hospital, under the care of remarkably competent nurses and doctors.
But it soon became apparent to them that I was at the end of my life's rope, and would soon die if I didn't have a transplant. I recall passing out, and waking up I think days later, with two huge pumps sticking out of my chest (like 90 year-old mammary glands, I told people). My heart had been removed, and I was being kept alive on a heart pump machine, a condition I never would have chosen on my own. But there I was, alive and feeling well for the first time in over a year. I had food and oxygen going to my brain, and of course whatever pain killers they doused me with. I was talking and feeling good in remarkably short order.
Four weeks later, I was to go home with a suitcase such as you might tote around an airport, the purpose of which was to carry the batteries that would keep my pumps going and my blood flowing. I was not to shower, needed someone to spend about an hour a day putting sterilized bandages around the pump entrances and exits to my chest cavity, and, in the event my batteries ran down, I was to pick up some hand pumps that looked like bulbs on cooking syringes, and squeeze those to keep the blood flowing, while the paramedics raced to take over--one of which might well have been my oldest son, who is a paramedic.
Panic began to set in, as the implications of all this filtered into my brain. Then, two days before I was to go home with my new suitcase, to await a call that I might never get, or wait for a year or more to get, advising me that a heart was available and being rushed on ice from somewhere to the LDS Hospital, I received a call at 9:30 p.m., while I was still in the hospital.
"Is this Dan?" "Yes." "This is Dr. Long, and I'm in California. I have a heart that I think will be an excellent match for you. Do you want me to come and put it in?"
I was too stunned to respond, as my chest filled with powerful emotions, my eyes with tears. "Should I come and put it in?" he repeated. "Y-Yes," I stammered, hardly able to talk.
"Ok, the nurses will start getting you ready, and I'll meet you at 2:30 a.m. in the operating room. Ok?" "Yes," I managed to squeak out again.
And thus it was that the unfathomable sorrow of someone else's death gave new life to me. I don't know the details of that person's death, whether it was a he or she, old or young, black or white or any other color, Democrat or Republican or apolitical. I have no idea what religion he or she may have been, or their outlook on life. All I know is that that person was a human being, a Homo sapien, the same species as are we. And, most importantly, that that person's family agreed to allow their loved one's heart to go on in the body of an unknown person, namely me. To them, though I have no idea who they are, I am eternally grateful.
I have done more teaching, worked out two inventions that are now in the marketplace (one will be useful for national security, humanitarian and scientific uses, while the other is a water toy that you may have purchased for your own child or children). I have written articles, finished a novel that I'm now trying to turn into a screen play, made new friends, continued my physical activities, and married a wonderful woman I am remarkably compatible with; in return for all this, I take a small number of drugs twice a day and make bi-annual visits to the hospital for check-ups.
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