Transplants … Fascinating

Albert Jefferies (Al-J) and Ashley Larimore continue to recover from last week’s back-to-back heart transplants. Both of these brave young people have endured a lifetime of health problems and now have a chance to change that. They both still have a ways to go … it is major surgery and like any major surgery they have some serious recovery time. I continue to remember them both in my prayers and wish them the best.

This weekend I found myself contemplating why I was so fascinated with these two stories. It was pure happenstance that I even found out about Al-J, and Ashley came to my attention because she responded to Al-J’s story like a lot of people did … but in her case it was to tell him that he was not alone, she was in the same situation.

Anyway, I am surprised I hadn’t thought about this before, but I have several coincidences in my past that serve to link me to things involving transplants. I just didn’t consciously put them all together until this weekend.

Well, I actually had thought about the most recent coincidence. This was my on-line friendship with Susan Steinsapir. Hers was likely one of the first heart disease/transplant stories that was chronicled in depth on-line. The world-wide internet community rallied around her, there were even articles written about the power of the internet bringing people together for this one common purpose. A bunch of us knew her from postings on internet interest groups called newsgroups. She kept us informed of her status via emails, and eventually web pages popped up. Compared to today, it was quite primitive, but we keep up with her case in almost real-time. But her case also had a sad ending … it turned out she was simply too ill to survive the operation. That was twenty years ago this past January. You can read about her on this tribute page a mutual friend has kept since that time: http://www.mimimart.com/susan/obit.htm (given the age .. some links may no longer be valid).

But there were three other coincidences in my life I hadn’t considered in this context. For some reason these all popped into my mind this weekend.

Two of the most famous pioneers in the realm of heart surgery worked in my hometown, Houston, Texas: Doctors Denton Cooley and Michael DeBakey. When the first heart transplant was announced in 1967, by Dr. Christiaan Barnard, I was fascinated by it. I read everything I could and local news stories concentrated on the two famous local surgeons.

The first coincidence … I went to grade school with Dr. Cooley’s daughter for a while. It’s true. Okay, I hardly knew her but we were in the same class! I didn’t realize that until after his first transplant, but I still remember her. Okay, it is pretty lame, but it IS a coincidence, right?

After Barnaard’s transplant, there were several transplants in the US, but Dr. Cooley completed what is regarded as the first successful heart transplant in May of 1968, when he operated on a gentleman by the name of Everett Thomas. Mr. Thomas lived for about seven months with that heart. Without the transplant he would have been dead in days. The reason I remember this was for one simple reason. Like I said, I was fascinated with the subject … so I had kept up with the news and read everything I could about his progress. Shortly after I read that Mr. Thomas had been released from the hospital and was living in Houston to be close to Dr. Cooley, I went to Catholic Mass one morning. I liked to get up and walk to the early service. This one Sunday morning, a family filed into a pew two rows ahead of me. It was Everett Thomas. I recognized him because of my fascination with the story and had seen his picture dozens of times. I respected their privacy and after Mass they quietly filed out of the church with their secret intact. I never saw them again at that service. In reality I was too shy to have ever even thought about approaching him, but I was amazed that here was this famous guy, with somebody else’s heart, sitting almost within arm’s reach. It had quite an impact on my fifteen year old brain.
Okay, third coincidence … years later I worked closely with a woman … we shared an office for seven or eight years. Years earlier she had been a secretary for Dr. DeBakey. I mean, she worked for him for years. She knew him. He called her by her first name. Sure, for me it was an association removed by a couple of degrees, but how strange is that … two associations with two famous heart surgeons?

Okay, so maybe I’m stretching the psychological boundaries of newsworthy fascinations, but who cares? I will continue to check on the progress of my newest heroes, Al-J and Ashley. Their recovery continues … small issues with blood pressure and pain, so everybody keep the prayers up. These kids deserve a long and happy life.
Keep up with Al-J here: http://www.teamalj.com
Ashley’s Heart Journey FB page: https://www.facebook.com/ashleysheartjourney/

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