- Real Estate
- Paris Flash
(EDITOR’S NOTE: In a 10-part series for eParisExtra readers, Paris City Manager John Godwin, who received a new heart on July 2, shares a series of short stories/character sketches about his transplant experiences – “doctors, nurses, drugs, my wife, a trainee priest, the night I got the new heart.” He returned to work on Aug. 19 for the first time since a near-fatal heart episode on June 14. Godwin, who has written three historical novels (Hope, 2004; Talisman, 2005; and Of Blood & Faith, 2010), wrote the 10 stories in July and August “while home bored with a laptop.”)
Part IX: The Letter
Home is a magical talisman for me. Much more than a word or a place. But a part of me. It’s where I draw comfort and support and strength. It’s familiar and comfortable. It’s where I am loved unconditionally, a place of rejuvenation of body and spirit. And after 27 days in a hospital, most of it in intensive care, it’s the place I want to be more than any other in the whole world.
I am home now. At last. I try to drink it in, like slaking a great thirst. The familiar front yard when I first arrive, the front porch swing off to one side, the pair of Labrador retrievers waiting at the door, wildly ecstatic to see me as only a Lab can be. I sit in my own big chair now, my own kitchen table not far away. I am watching my own big screen television, and my wife has served me a home-cooked supper. Later I will sleep in my own bed, and tomorrow use my own shower, the warm water washing the hospital off of me and sending it far, far away. I luxuriate in the feeling of being here, my family gathered with me. My eyes are half closed. I’m not really watching that big television, and couldn’t care less what’s on. It’s just being here that gives me strength and comforts me. It’s just being here that confirms I am still alive. And it’s here that I know I will heal and get better and finally back to normal.
Then my daughter shatters my quiet revelry. She asks if I want to hear her letter. At first I have no idea what she is talking about, but when your teenage daughter wants to talk, you stop and listen, for I find those times far too few and far between, and in a few more weeks she’s off to college and we become empty nesters after 26 years of children. The letter is for the family of my heart donor. The person who died, probably suddenly, possibly violently, and to whom I owe an eternal debt. Contact between donors and recipients and their families are generally discouraged, but donors are invited to write anonymous letters to the donor family if they wish. The donor family may accept and read the letter, or return it unopened. My daughter has written her letter, and it’s incredible.
With passion and emotion she shares something of who I am – as a husband, father, and grandfather. She expresses her deep sorrow for the grieving family, and admiration for their courage and selflessness. She knows that without their actions, her father might never have enjoyed home again, while showing how deeply she understands that just the opposite is true for the donor family. Their loved one will never enjoy home again.
My wife starts it. I hear her breathing grow labored as my daughter reads, her words pouring out deep emotion. She sniffles, and so do I. Tears stream down her face and I realize my eyes too are full. By the time our 18-year old finishes the letter, we both cry uncontrollably. I cannot know if the donor family will accept the letter, or ever read it, but for my wife and me, it provokes a great emotional catharsis. Guilt, confusion, happiness, unfairness, sorrow. Much more. Emotions not until now really thought of, or at least not consciously addressed. I think of the movie Saving Private Ryan and wonder if I am worth it, if I deserve this incredible gift of life received at such high cost from complete strangers. In the movie, Tom Hanks’ character willingly sacrifices his life so Private Ryan can go home to his family. The man who saved my life was not given that choice. He is gone forever, and I am here because of his tragedy. I am happy to be alive, and so is my family. But at what a horrible price for someone else.
As a lay in ICU day after day waiting, many of the doctors and nurses predicted I would get a new heart over the Fourth of July weekend. It’s one of their busy seasons, they explained. Lots of alcohol and irresponsible celebrations netted premature deaths of otherwise healthy people. They were not happy about it. It was not like they saw it as a grand opportunity. They are not mechanical automatons. It is just a sad fact of their business. I understand they are very busy around New Year’s Eve too. So there I was, waiting for someone to die. It was possible I might survive for a time without a new heart, but probably not too long. My surgeon described my survival from an initial surgery as a miracle. Now, at home with my new heart, I confront the horrible conflict of emotion that I had been avoiding. My daughter’s incredibly powerful words purge those emotions from deep inside me and I can barely speak.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, some 3,000 Americans are on the wait list for a new heart on any given day. As of June 26 of this year, that number is up slightly, to 3,545. Yet only about 2,000 hearts become available each year. That deadly deficit becomes huge when one considers that all organ wait lists combined totaled 129,039. Transplants for some of these patients are risky and many might not survive even with a donor. But an horrific number will die for the very simple reason that a heart or lung or kidney is simply unavailable. So while a young man only a few rooms down the hall from me dies waiting for a heart that never comes, thousands of hearts are being lost to no good purpose. Shortly after I receive my new heart, another lady is turned away completely, her rejection a death sentence.
All of those needing new organs are not middle-aged men either. Some 197 children aged five and under got new hearts last year. In my home town of Marshall, a 10 year-old boy named Anthony has been waiting for a new heart for almost two years. No one knows how long he can survive like he is, but without a new heart, his prognosis is horrible to consider. A child, afraid and sick. Yet he does not have to be. The sad arithmetic of life is that hearts that could save him will be there. The question is whether a donor family will do what mine did and rescue one life even at the price of another. A lifelong friend of mine has a daughter who received a new heart at the age of 15. We visit and he tells me she struggles with guilt. She knows in her case another child had to die to save her. My doctors tell me not to feel guilty. Your donor did not die because of you. Rather I live because of him.
Later, as an outpatient, I run into other survivors. One got his new heart just a week or two before me. Another has had his new heart for six years. Two others have survived 13 and 17 years, respectively. That’s five lives saved counting me. For the latter three men, that’s a total of 36 years of life, and still counting, that were gifted to them. If the donor families had decided differently, those men likely would all be lost, their cumulative 36 years never lived. On the opposite end, I meet the wife of a visibly sick, suffering, and distraught man. He is only two years older than me! In the great rating scale of who gets what first, I was listed as 1A. This poor man is a 2B. His wife does not speak the words aloud, but the elephant in the room is that we all know he will never get his transplant. He will be lucky to survive the year. Sadly, the operation he needs could and probably would save his life, despite the additional risk factors he has. But he will die because there are simply not enough hearts being donated to rescue him.
Yet becoming a donor is surprisingly easy. In Texas, a person can simply check a box when getting a driver’s license.
One night at the hospital, before I get my new heart, I mention to my family that several years ago I began listing myself as a donor. My heart will not do anyone any good, and at the time, there is still concern about my kidneys and liver too, but maybe I have something of value to someone. My wife notes she is also listed as a donor and I am surprised to learn my youngest daughter is as well. None of us knew about each other’s decisions. I later find out my two older daughters and my one son-in-law are all registered donors too. That makes me proud, and secretly I hope somehow maybe my family can get “points” towards a new heart for me.
More recently, one of my letter-writing daughter’s best friends dies suddenly after a horrible, painful bout with cancer. I feel the guilt again. Why is he gone and I am still here? Kyle is a fine young man and he deserves and needs a father as much as my daughter does. So why the opposite outcomes? Of course in the overall scheme of the universe, I cannot know why. Probably there is no why. But specifically it’s because he had an horrific nasty, virulent disease that man has not yet learned to cure. His outcome was certain, whereas mine could have gone either way. Ultimately I lived in part because of the wonders of modern medicine and the incredible skills of a rare group of surgeons. But I live, too, because a family made a choice to reach out in their dark hour and saved me with a donated heart. I pray some family, some horrible distraught, grieving, shattered family will make the same gut-wrenching decision and save little Anthony from Marshall in the same selfless way. I would never wish the loss of a child on any family, but the only tragedy I can think of worse than a family losing a child is two families losing two children.
Next – Part X: The Wife
For other “Transplant Experience” stories in the 10-part series, go to: