Ten Startling Sentences I Can Stop a Conversation With


1.  I Had a Heart Transplant.

Of course, this is the obvious sentence to start with.  Only about 3,500 heart transplants are performed annually throughout the world, so there aren’t a lot of people who can say that they are walking around with someone else’s heart beating inside them.

I had had a failing heart since 1999 when I developed atrial fibrillation and from that 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 that list. As recently as October of that year I was told that the transplant would likely take place in 2010, probably in the spring.

It’s one thing intellectually to think you’re getting a heart transplant in 2010, and quite another months before that to receive a morning phone call (I was working at the computer) on Nov. 23: "Mr. Whaley, we have a heart for you."  That was the most startling sentence I’ve 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 climbed into 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 many of these, see below), 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,” because last past September had done a transplant in two hours! (The normal one takes five or more hours). The heart they inserted had come from Riverside Hospital, which is just around the corner from Ross Heart Hospital (and that was splendid luck 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 was surprised that the old heart they removed was so enlarged that it was three times bigger than the new 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 commonplace to me, but no. It still fills me with a wonder that’s growing instead of decreasing. What an amazing world we inhabit in the 21st century!


2.  I Sleep With Both Ears Folded Against My Head.

I’ve always had very large ears, inherited from my grandfather John Whaley, whose ears looked just as elephantine as mine.  Fortunately my curly hair disguises their size but in some photos they stick out.  I sleep on my side, but since I was a little boy I’ve found it uncomfortable to rest my head on this large lump.  I discovered early on that I could simply fold my ear forward and sleep that way.  Plus I always thought it was odd to sleep with every part of your body warm except your head, so I use an extra pillow to cover the head.  This led to folding the top ear as well, and thus all my life I’ve slept with folded ears, which has the further advantage of muffling sound.


This lifelong folding has made my ears very pliable so that they are easily moved back and forth.  The only people who’ve ever noticed this are barbers (“I’ve never seen an ear so easy to move around” is the common comment as the barber moves the ear forward to cut the hair behind it).

3.  My Cat Saved Me From Dying.


4.  On September 11, 2001, I Was Contemplating My Own Death.


5.  My Mother Taught Me How To Deal With Death Threats.

In 1981, I joined a fledgling gay activist movement in Columbus at its very start. It was then called “Stonewall Union,” and now, almost thirty years later is still the largest gay rights group in mid-Ohio under the name “Stonewall Columbus.”  There were major battles in those days, all captured in a DVD of the local movement’s history [available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQotjSKjdIE], where I can be seen addressing the annual gay pride march on the Ohio Statehouse lawn and teaching the crowd how best to deal with near-by protestors, holding Bibles and teaching hatred to their little children. Some of the battles were public (a near riot in the Columbus City Council meeting when a gay rights ordinance was proposed), some private (I was jumped by a gang of teenagers one night, and was kicked around, most violently in the testicles, which was—how shall I put this?—no fun). Interestingly, I learned how to handle phoned death threats from an unusual source: my mother.  Dad by this time was a prosecutor in Dallas, and he was so good at it he’d been promoted to prosecuting “career criminals” (i.e., the Mafia). Mom would get phone calls telling her she and Dad would both die unless he stopped one of these trials from occurring, so she had some practical experience to pass on to her son. “What I do, Doug,” she advised, “is to say loudly, ‘Operator, this is one of those calls, please trace it.’ The caller hangs up immediately!” Then Mom added, “The opposite happened of what he’d planned.  He called to scare me.”  Of course, in those the days there were no such innovations as caller-ID, which (I hope) has made such calls rarer. I tried Mom’s method and it worked admirably.


6.  My Becoming a Law Professor Was an Alphabetical Accident.

With many thanks to Jay Westbrook for being a “W”: http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2010/01/how-i-became-law-professor.html.


7.  I Flunked a College Course and Nearly Flunked It Again When I Repeated It.


8.  My Father Followed Me Through Law School.


9.  I Didn’t Go Through Puberty Until Age 23.

An early medical problem that affected my life greatly: http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2011/05/going-through-puberty-at-age-23.html.


10.  I’ve Endured Around 50 Surgeries.

By “surgeries” I mean any procedure in which cutting was done on my body.  Some of these were small (cataract surgeries in both eyes) or lasik surgery, for example, but others were major (most obviously the heart transplant).  The first happened when I was in second grade and had my tonsils removed, and the most recent was a week ago Thursday when my ophthalmologist zapped my left eye fifteen times with a laser to remove a film causing me major vision problems.  I ruptured my appendix in 1978 and this led to my belly being sliced open six times in major surgeries; for the blog post on point see http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2010/08/first-time-i-nearly-died.html.  Then, as topic #4 above explains there occurred much slicing open of my upper chest to take in and pull out a defibrillator in the years prior to the heart transplant.  As one point I had major problems with my nose which led to my turbinates being cut away by lasers.  And in 2013 I had a total knee replacement.  A blog clot in my leg required stents being inserted/removed in my body four times, and there have been an number of surgeries related to problems with my heart including one in which a dual electrical system had to be cut out.

Heart biopsies have led to most of the surgeries that count in the big number listed above.  In this interesting medical procedure, which takes about 45 minutes, the cardiologist inserts a tube into my neck on the right lower side, threads it down to the heart (which, trust me, does not like this invasion) and takes a four tiny snips for analysis, pulling them back up the tube.  Sounds like fun, right?  A couple of months before the transplant I had the first of these procedures. The next one was the day of the transplant itself (Nov. 23, 2009), and periodically thereafter (once a week for the first couple of months, then once a month for a year, and then three times a year, and, eventually, once a year), I have had and for the rest of my life will have to endure these occasionally. There have now been about thirty over the last five years.

None of these major or minor surgeries include other traumatic incidents in my life like breaking an arm (age ten) or a leg (age 16), nor bouts of various illnesses, including aspergillus which took me down immediately after the heart transplant and kept me in the hospital over New Years [see http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2010/01/new-years-party-without-host.html].

So when people hear about my having had a heart transplant they sometimes ask if I was afraid when I was on a gurney being wheeled down a hall on my way to surgery.  I sigh and answer that—alas—I’m used to it.  As one blog post explained, I’ve walked away from death quite a number of times and am, happily, still here: http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2012/02/walking-away-from-death.html.

Related Post:
“The Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013



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