About That Heart Transplant

I realized that I began this blog without saying much about the heart transplant itself. The reason for that is that most people who would read the blog already knew the story (and now may allow their attention to wander). But for the rest of you, here goes:

I have had a failing heart since 1999 when I developed atrial fibrillation and an enlarged heart. For the next ten years I was treated by a cardiologist at Ohio State University’s Ross Heart Hospital, and it was clear that my heart was failing. In January of 2009 I qualified for the heart transplant list, but because I was still able to get out and about, I was not high on the list. As recently as October I was told that the transplant would likely take place in 2010, probably in the spring.

It is one thing intellectually to think you are getting a heart transplant in 2010, and quite another to have a morning phone call (I was working at the computer) on Nov. 23: "Mr. Whaley, we have a heart for you." It was the most startling sentence I have ever heard in my life! Of course, the old heart started beating very fast indeed. The caller asked me how quickly I could get to the hospital, and I replied, “Twenty minutes—oh wait, I have to pack (I had spent some time in hospitals and knew all the things I would need to take with me)—how about forty minutes?” “That would be fine,” I was told, so I ventured to stretch it to, “How about an hour?” “Forty minutes,” came back the stern reply. I threw things into a suitcase and got in the car.

I have never driven so carefully in my life. The slightest traffic problem—even a fender bender—would have cost me time and possibly the new heart, which I assumed was on ice waiting for me. I arrived at the hospital, submitted to a biopsy (where they run a tube down a vein in your neck and take a small slice of your heart for lab work—I have now had eight of these, and they are such fun), and at 7:30 p.m. that same day I was wheeled off to the operating room. The surgeon who performed the operation was Dr. Sun, called by the staff “our rock star,” who last September had done a transplant in two hours! (The normal one takes five or more hours). The heart they put in had come from Riverside Hospital, which is just around the corner from Ross Heart Hospital (which was good since hearts can come from as far away as New York). The surgeon who fetched it from Riverside came by days later and told me that when he first saw it, he thought "that is a beautiful heart." A nurse who watched the operation said that the heart they took was so enlarged that it was three times bigger than the heart they put in. I was home and happy eight days later. Yes, eight days!

The whole experience has been like science fiction. I keep thinking that the more time that passes since this miracle occurred will make it seem more common place to me, but no. It still fills me with a wonder that is growing instead of decreasing. What an amazing world we inhabit in the 21st century.

I know nothing about the donor, whether male or female, or what age (the heart could be that of a teenager). But there is an organization that lets a donee write an anonymous letter to the donor’s family, and I am planning on doing that this coming week. What follows is the letter I will send (some of which repeats what I said above); I’ll let you know if I get a reply:

“I am a 66 year-old man living in Columbus, retired from teaching at Ohio State, but until right before Thanksgiving of this past year, I knew I was dying because of my enlarged heart. Then came the phone call that OSU’s Ross Heart Hospital had a heart for me, and, shocking and scary as that was, by midnight of that day, I had a new heart inside me, and suddenly I had a future again. The surgeon who did the operation later told me it was a “beautiful heart,” and he was amazed that when it was transplanted into my body, it started beating when the blood flow began without any outside stimulation. It has continued to beat steadily for over two months now and my health could not be better. I was floored to learn that it was three times as small as the old heart they removed.

“Through the kind auspices of Lifeline, I am able to write this anonymous letter to the family and friends of the donor of that heart. I wanted to wait until the grief at the death of your loved one was not so immediate, but not so long that I would seem ungrateful. Indeed, I could not be more grateful. I had stopped making long range plans, stopped buying clothes, cancelled a vacation next summer with my nephew, and then came this miracle. It is all like science fiction—unbelievable. But every day I thank the donor for his/her willingness to pass on that heart (and, I suppose, other organs) to those who so desperately needed a transplant.

“Who the donor was is unknown to me. But he/she gave me the gift of life, and that is a tremendous thing to do.

“I know this letter must be painful for you to read, and I fear it will open wounds that are just beginning to heal. But I thought it important to tell you that out of all the grief that comes from losing someone close to you, there was one life that was saved from certain extinction by the generosity of the decision to donate the heart I received. Perhaps that helps furnish some minor degree of closure.

“There is no need for you to reply to this letter, but should you care to, Lifeline will forward your letter to me. I am curious to know something about the donor to whom I owe so much. I am so very indebted and grateful to him/her. And my thoughts and sympathies are with you.”

Related Posts:
"My Heart Belonged to Andrew," February 17, 2010
"Another Letter to Andrew's Parents," March 10, 2010
"A Toast to Andrew," May 2, 2010
"Mama, Biopsies, and My iPad," May 19, 2010
"The First time I Nearly Died," August 3, 2010
"Rehabilitating Doug," June 12, 2010
"The Purring Heart," November 23, 2010
"1999-2001: A Dramatic Story, " December 15, 2010
"Naming My Heart," March 24, 2011
"Report on Old Doug: Health, Theater, eBook, and More," June 28, 2011
"Mama Cat Saves My Life," October 23, 2011
"Walking Away From Death," February 29, 2012
"Doug Update: Health, Acting, Book Readings, and Snowbirding," September 6, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013


  1. We are all grateful to the donor who not only saved a life but also saved a great teacher.

  2. Bloody fantastic! (Pun 100% intended.) You just made my day with this news...I am all but pounding with joy.

  3. I think you might want to let some of the people you have taught/directed in the past add a few words. (I like client228s words above. succint) Few people dedicate their lives to others in the way teachers do. Even fewer teach so well. You certainly made my law school years more comprehensible and fun.


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