August 9, 1997 became one of the most terrifying times of my life. Dr. Ray Benza came into our room at the University of Alabama Medical Canter Heart Transplant Unit and said, “I have mixed news. We have found a heart that is compatible with you, but there is someone ahead of you on the list. We will begin the process to prepare you for surgery, but unless he has a problem, he will get this heart and you will have to continue to wait for the next one.” About an hour later, he came back and said, “Good news, you get the heart.”
By the time Dr. Benza came with the good news, I had been shaved from top to bottom, except my head and big toes. I had been scrubbed two times with surgical soap. We were waiting and suddenly, I panicked. My faith had dwindled to nothing over the succeeding months as my heart had deteriorated. My wife, who always knows just what I need, called for the chaplain who came immediately. Pitifully, I looked at him and said, “I can’t do this, I’ve lost my faith.” I only remember him taking me in his arms and hugging me as he whispered in my ear, “No you haven’t, He is still with you.” In that moment, a sweet peace settled over me. I was still frightened, but I knew if I died, it would be okay, and if I lived that too would be okay.
Soon several of the transplant team came, put me on a gurney, packed up the IV and heart monitor, let me kiss my dear wife, share a word of prayer, and off we went. I found myself lying in a cold hallway, just outside the operating suite where they would eventually hook me up to machines, put me to sleep, cool my body to 80 degrees, open my chest, stop my heart, and remove it from my body. Then they would carefully stitch in the new heart, warm it to body temperature, and hope it would start. The outcome depended on how it responded.
There I was, extremely cold in that barren hall, under a sheet extremely cold, frightened, thirsty and experiencing a loneliness I suspect visits those on death row after the final appeal is rejected. My eyes were closed and I was just lying there shivering. Suddenly, I sensed a presence. I opened my eyes, looked up and there she stood. I could only see her eyes. Her face was covered with a surgical mask and just a bit of blond hair peeked out from under her surgical cap. She looked directly into my eyes that saw into the very depth of my soul. Her eyes astounded me with their depth and beauty. They were a light blue and were virtually transparent. She said in a gentle voice, “Hello, I’m Helen, a nurse anesthetist, and I’m going to take care of you.” She went on, “You are thirsty and cold aren’t you?” “Yes,” I answered. Helen was gone for just a moment then she returned and gently covered me with warm blankets, carefully tucking them under me to assure no cold air could find its way in. I flashed back to my Mother tucking me in when I was a child. Then she started to tenderly swab my lips with sponges dipped in warm water. I thought that someone had done this for Jesus while he hung on the cross.
We started talking. I don’t know just how the topic came up, but she said. My son and daughter-in-law just had a baby, he was born July 9th and was six weeks premature. I do remember how it came up, she looked at my armband and said your name is John Thomas, that is my son’s name, then on with the story of her grandchild. She said that the baby was healthy. However, was of low birth weight and being held in the neonatal ICU.
I couldn’t believe it and told her that my son is named John Thomas, had a baby born six weeks premature and delivered on July 9th also. He was being held in the neonatal unit until he gained adequate weight. Helen’s grandbaby was named John Thomas after his father and grandfather. My grandson is named Ian Thomas, Ian being the Scottish name for John, because my son didn’t want to saddle him with the name John Thomas IV.
Helen stayed with me, conversing, nursing, encouraging me until we heard a radio call. My transplant surgeon flew his own plane and had gone to Mobile, Alabama to receive the heart that was offered by a grieving family. He said, “We will be on the ground in 5 minutes and it will take us another 13 minutes to get to the hospital. We have confirmed the helicopter is standing by. Begin the procedure.” Helen gently leaned over and kissed me on the forehead, said a short prayer and disappeared. I never saw her again and no one could place her when we later asked about her. She might have been a nurse waiting for another case, or she might have been something far more spectacular than that. I am not going to speculate about who or what she was; I’m just going to say that I can never adequately express my thanks for the comfort she brought me.
Things then went into high gear. I was quickly whisked into the operating suite. I was transferred to the surgical table, my arms were strapped to cross members that extended to either side of the table, powerful lights were turned on, machines started beeping and flashing. A man said I am the transplant cardiologist I will take care of your heart, another said, I am the transplant anesthesiologist, “Can you take some deep breaths for me.” Some five or six hours later, I’m not sure which, I opened my eyes to see my precious wife standing over me gently rubbing my forehead. She was saying, “It’s all right, it’s alright.” I could see my two children through hazy eyes as they stood in the background. Bev and I had agreed on our special signal before surgery since I had never been dead before and didn’t know what it was like and I wanted to be sure I was alive if I really was. After a few moments, I was back asleep.
The next day, I was awakened, had the breathing tube removed, and sat on the side of the bed. Soon they had me standing up. My only pain was a headache from increased blood flow to my brain. The only pain medicine that I remember taking was Tylenol for my headache. Later in the week, I had what might have been a tiny bit of rejection, which was quickly reversed. The next week I walked a mile, while pushing my dear Mommy in a wheel chair.
It took me a while to get over the fact that I got a heart that might have gone to a man who had been waiting for a year. He had been on a right ventricular assist pump the size of a shopping cart and had not been able to leave the transplant unit. Several months later, he received his heart and the last we heard he was doing well.
Seldom a day goes by that I don’t say a prayer for the grieving family who graciously gave their son’s heart and 7 other organs that other people might live. I long to see him in heaven and give his heart back.
The only difficulty with my recovery is with PTSD. After several months of periodically finding myself back in the operating suite shaking in terror, I finally saw a psychiatrist who had had two previous kidney transplants. He diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which shocked me, thinking it only applied to people who had been in combat. He showed me the parallels, relating what I had been through to what soldiers in battle go through. While we were waiting for my transplant, several friends died before receiving a heart (friends killed). Survivor’s guilt (I received a heart that someone else might have received). Near death experience (They literally killed me). Fear of imminent death (I was within a week of death when the heart came and had come very close several times before). Episodes were set off by certain smells, sounds, and light patterns. I still take antidepressants and sometimes medication for anxiety attacks.
In October of 2009 I required a kidney transplant due to long-term damage done to my kidneys from the multiple catheterisations done to my heart plus the nephrotoxic medications given to protect my heart.
I hope people facing transplants of all sorts find this and take some benefit from reading it. Each experience is different, but within each, there are similarities. I also hope more people will agree to be organ donors; 87,000 people are waiting for hearts, kidneys, lungs, and intestines. Tissues can also be donated and can bless those who are in dire need. I don’t mind receiving emails about heart or kidney transplants at [email protected].
This piece is free to anyone who wants to use it; please simply credit: Rev. Jack deJarnette as the author.
Some names have been changed in this story to protect privacy.