Sample – Personal Story/Memoir

After a heart and kidney transplant saved Bill Chenier’s life nearly two years after he lost his youngest son, Scott, to the same congenital heart disease he’d had, Bill asked me to write his family’s story for a fundraiser he was planning. It is a story of both heartbreak and triumph, and I was privileged to have been invited inside it. To write this story, I conducted several emotional interviews with some of the key players involved, including Scott’s cardiologist and widow.

Heartstrings

By Robyn Passante

Bill Chenier stands in his kitchen with a pile of fresh tomatoes from his garden. It is early September and the 60-year-old retired chef is in his favorite spot in the house, about to do his favorite thing.

“He enjoys cooking, and I enjoy letting him,” says his wife, Andrea.

Over the next several hours those tomatoes will become Bill’s spaghetti sauce. As he chops, measures and simmers, he will at times notice the bruises covering his arms, a side effect of the high dose of Prednisone he’s taking. But he isn’t bothered by them; they are merely an amusing contradiction. On the outside his body appears battered, but on the inside — thanks to a new heart, a new kidney and the ultimate kindness of a stranger — it has never been stronger.

“I haven’t stopped smiling since I woke up,” he says. It’s been a full month, but the grin in his eyes makes you believe him.

* * *

HEART MURMUR: An abnormal sound heard on listening to the heart, usually through a stethoscope, produced by the blood passing through deformed cardiac valves.

Bill remembers the first time he learned there was something wrong with his heart. He was in fourth grade, standing in line for a school physical. The nurse handed each student their medical sheet, and Bill turned his over and read two words on the back that puzzled and worried him: “Heart murmur.”

“When I went home, I was scared. I asked my mom, ‘What’s a heart murmur?’” But his parents waved away his concern, and since he felt fine, he believed them.

It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school that he learned more about that murmur: He’d had a hole in his heart, called an atrial septal defect, since birth. His parents flew him to Houston that summer to have open-heart surgery performed by a heart specialist who was studying closely under world-renowned cardiac surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey. Thirty-five years before Bill’s surgery, DeBakey had invented the roller pump, which provides a continuous flow of blood during operations and, in turn, made open-heart surgery possible.

The surgery lasted three hours, and afterward the frightened teenager from upstate New York was treated to daily rounds by the legend himself and about 30 of DeBakey’s colleagues and students. When Bill left Houston that summer of 1967, he thought everything was better. But there were two lingering problems: He had a slowly weakening heart thanks to a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and he had the gene that caused it.

We learn about genetics in middle school science class, the twisted ladders of chromosomes by which parents pass down to their children blue eyes or dimples, strong teeth or weak hearts.

“My grandfather had 20 siblings, and a lot of them died of sudden heart attacks,” Bill says. “Fifteen of them lived past the age of 5, and a lot of them had heart problems of some kind.” Bill’s father had a silent heart attack in his 50s, and now has a pacemaker. Bill’s brother had a major heart attack at age 53. Bill’s niece was born with an atrial septal defect, as was his niece’s daughter.

On and on the list goes, the strands twisting cruelly against those he loves generation to generation. His older son, also named Bill, suffers from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and had a defibrillator implanted at age 34.

And then there’s Scott.

Bill’s younger son also was born with ASD and had open-heart surgery at age 2 to repair the hole. “Just to sit and look at him with a totally gray face, hooked up to monitors, it was scary,” Bill says. Scott’s heart was never 100 percent, but that only slowed him slightly from the crazy pace of childhood. He loved to play hockey, both street and ice, and Bill would stand in his backyard on frigid winter nights spraying water over a homemade ice rink for his boys and their neighborhood pals.

When Scott was 17 he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, years before his father and brother would receive the same diagnosis. At the time, a pacemaker was implanted in Scott’s chest, so that when his heart rate fell too low, the pacemaker’s undetectable electrical impulse would zap it back into a higher rhythm. You could see the outline of the small device protruding slightly from under his skin; beside it was the long vertical scar from his open-heart surgery. The neighborhood kids were careful not to tease him about these visible reminders of his infirmity. To Scott, they were merely battle scars, evidence of how much stronger he now was.

Strong, but hardly invincible.

* * *

HEART ATTACK: Damage to an area of heart muscle that is deprived of oxygen, usually due to blockage of a diseased coronary artery, typically accompanied by chest pain radiating down one or both arms, the severity of the attack varying with the extent and location of the damage.

In May1992 Connie Goedert was a bus driver for the Queensbury School District, and her husband, Richard, was the school district’s transportation supervisor. The Goederts also were volunteer EMTs with the West Glens Falls Emergency Squad.

The couple had finished the morning bus run and was heading out for a late breakfast when Connie’s pager signaled there was a male student having a seizure at the Queensbury High School blue gym. They swung their car around and sped back to the gym parking lot, rushing in to see the school nurse on her knees, hovering over a kid on the gym floor. It was Scott; he was a high school senior, set to graduate in a month. Right away Connie knew this was no seizure.

“She’s doing CPR on him,” she told Richard as they ran toward the action. “Get on the radio, advise someone we have a full arrest on location.” Connie wanted to give the EMTs heading to the scene a heads up so they’d bring the right equipment.

Then she bent down next to Scott and checked for a pulse. He had none. Connie began CPR with the nurse, then used a defibrillator to send a shock to the teen’s heart to try to get it beating again. When the EMTs arrived, she helped them start an IV, then stayed with Scott in the back of the ambulance. By the time they reached Glens Falls Hospital, they’d gotten a pulse back.

Bill and Andrea, Scott’s stepmother, beat the ambulance to the hospital and were waiting for Scott when he came in. His mother, Cindy Wasson, and his brother, Bill, flew in from Virginia as soon as they could. Though his heart was beating when he reached the hospital, he was unconscious and stayed that way, in the Intensive Care Unit, until later that night. When he finally woke up he was terrified and confused, ripping out his IV lines and yelling incoherently. Security was alerted and the hospital called his father, who’d gone home to get some sleep. Bill rushed back to the hospital at 2 a.m. to calm his son.

Within a month, Scott was referred to St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston to see Dr. Charles Haffajee, an electrophysiology specialist. There was talk about a heart transplant, but at only 18, it scared Scott and his family. Instead they implanted a defibrillator in Scott’s lower right abdomen, diagonally across from the pacemaker on the left side of his chest. This small battery-powered device would regulate Scott’s heartbeat if it went into atrial or ventricular fibrillation, where the pumping of blood through the four chambers of the heart becomes irregular, causing the chambers to merely quiver instead of properly contract.

The defibrillator and the heart attack were added to Scott’s growing mosaic of battle scars. As usual, he handled them with quiet nonchalance. One day before graduation Scott walked up to Connie in school and introduced himself.

“I don’t really remember you,” he said, “but I’ve been told about you, and I just want to thank you.” Connie hugged the skinny teenager and sent him on his way. The next time they came in contact would be under very different circumstances.

* * *

HEART DEFECT: A defect in the structure of the heart and great vessels. A congenital heart defect is present at birth.

GATA4 and NKX2-5: These two letter and number combinations mean nothing, and everything, to the Chenier family. Research in recent years has shown that the mutations of these individual genes cause congenital heart defects like the ones that have afflicted Bill, Scott, and so many of their relatives.

A year after Scott’s heart attack, Bill began to feel ill; he went to the doctor and was told he had a migraine. But while on a trip to Boston to visit Scott’s heart specialist, the son called attention to his father’s symptoms.

“You get up on the table,” Dr. Haffajee said to Bill, who quietly complied. A quick checkup revealed Bill’s heart was in atrial fibrillation. Even worse, a blood clot in the heart caused by the atrial fibrillation had in turn caused a transient ischemic attack — Bill had had a mini-stroke.

The doctor diagnosed Bill with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the same affliction that had brought his son to Boston. That day Haffajee used a defibrillator to shock Bill’s heart back to a normal rhythm. But it would be almost 10 years before doctors would implant a defibrillator in Bill’s chest, the way they’d done for his son. In that time, Scott’s pacemaker and defibrillator were replaced with a single pacer/defibrillator device. He also met the woman of his dreams and started a family of his own.

Jessica Powers was working with Andrea at a gift store in Queensbury back in 1997, when one night after work Andrea and a few others decided to head to a local bar for beer and wings. Andrea asked Jess if she’d like to come along. “My son Scott will be there too,” she told Jess, who had heard Andrea talk fondly about her younger son before.

Jess said yes, and the two twentysomethings hit it off immediately. Jess thought Scott was good-looking, easy to talk to, and very, very funny. Scott used sarcasm not as a weapon but a demonstration of affection. If he didn’t pick on you, he didn’t like you. Though his heart was prone to failing him, his wicked sense of humor never did, and he even found a way to use his infirmity as a punch line. Upon meeting Scott, his future father-in-law said, “You’re not afraid of me?” Scott looked him square in the eye without a hint of emotion. “I died once,” he deadpanned. “What am I afraid of?”

In 1999, two years after Scott and Jess met, their daughter, Mabel, was born. They held their breaths through tests, both while Jess was pregnant and after Mabel was born, for any sign of a congenital heart defect. But the baby girl’s heart tested perfectly healthy, a huge relief to the new parents. The following year, they tied the knot.

That same year, a cardiologist in Glens Falls told Scott that within the next five to 10 years he would need a heart transplant. Scott and Jess were devastated; the news sent the new husband and father into a panic attack. Unsure what to do, Jess called the person who was best at calming Scott down — his dad. Usually when Scott was upset about something, the father and son would simply go for a drive or head out to breakfast. This time, though, Scott was so visibly upset Bill took him to a doctor to get a prescription for anti-anxiety medication.

Then a follow-up visit with his cardiac specialist in Boston relieved his fears. There’s no need for a transplant, the doctor told Scott. His heart was doing fine.

Four years later their son, Luc, was born, with another seemingly perfect heart. Scott continued to have issues and illnesses off and on, but he always bounced back. “He always got better,” Jess says.

* * *

HEARTSTRINGS: One’s deepest feelings of love and compassion.

By the time Luc was a toddler, he was on ice skates, playing hockey like his father had as a little boy. And like Scott’s father had done for him, Scott could be found in his backyard on cold winter nights, watering and shaping a patch of frozen ground into a rink for his boy.

In the fall of 2008 Scott, then 34, was taking Luc to hockey practice at the Glens Falls Civic Center when he slipped and fell on the steps, injuring his back. The pain got worse and worse until finally, on Christmas Day, he was admitted to the hospital, diagnosed with an infection in a disc in his back. Because of the serious risk an infection posed to his pacemaker, Scott spent five days in the hospital receiving intravenous antibiotics and then a full month returning to the hospital for an hour-long IV antibiotic treatment every day. By spring he was feeling better, back to his old happy, energetic self.

Then in late summer Scott’s pacemaker was bothering him, so he headed to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston for surgery to reposition the device. But instead of the incision healing, it too became infected. The couple was left to wonder if perhaps the infection in his back never fully went away.

A staph infection heads directly to a foreign body — in this case, Scott’s pacemaker. His doctors in Boston commanded him to get back out there right away. It was the middle of September; Jess cried as she left a message for Luc’s teacher, telling her they wouldn’t be in town to attend Luc’s kindergarten open house.

They were in Boston for only three or four days, long enough for Scott to receive blasts of IV antibiotics and for the nurses to teach Jess how to change the IV meds at home. Doctors knew they’d need to remove the pacemaker and its leads, but Scott and Jess wanted to spend time with the kids and get some things in order before they returned for surgery. They were sent back to New York with more IV antibiotics and an order to return in a couple weeks.

As the days passed, Scott knew the antibiotics weren’t working; his body was weakening. He showed up at his father’s doorstep the night before their return trip to Boston. He pulled up his shirt to show his dad how the infection was oozing out of the incision on the left side of his chest, right above the pacemaker. Nine months before that, the two had watched Bill’s brother die of sepsis caused by a staph infection after a dialysis treatment. Looking at Scott’s infection was like déja vu.

Scott started to cry, and so did his father. Finally the son, now a father of his own, said, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” and hugged Bill goodbye. Bill and Andrea, along with other relatives and friends, were making the trip to be with Scott through the surgery.

The next morning Scott fought back tears as he kissed his kids goodbye; not sure how long they’d be in Boston this time, Jess and Scott had decided to leave the kids home with friends so they wouldn’t miss school. Mabel, who was 10, had a hard time letting them go.

Later, as Scott said goodbye to their neighbors, he leaned in when Jess wasn’t listening and whispered, “Take care of Jess and the kids.”

* * *

HEART FAILURE: Severe failure of the heart to function properly, esp. as a cause of death.

Scott and Jess arrived at Beth Israel in Boston knowing Scott’s last chance for survival was for surgeons to remove the pacemaker that had been put there to ensure his survival in the first place. On Oct. 7, the morning of the surgery, the room was crowded with loved ones. Besides Bill and Andrea, Scott’s mother, Cindy, was there, as was an aunt, some of Jess’s friends, and Scott’s brother, Bill. There were no heavy goodbyes, just lighthearted words of encouragement and good-natured ribbing. Jess implored him to behave. “Sometimes they would give him certain medications where he’d become so flirtatious when he woke up from surgery,” she says. “I’d always tell him, ‘Don’t mess with the nurses.’”

She told her husband she’d be right there, and that he’d be OK. Then they wheeled him in for surgery.

It was the last time any of them got to speak with Scott.

The next two weeks were a blur. The pacemaker and its leads had been inside Scott so long they were covered with scar tissue and nearly impossible to remove. Surgeons tried again and again, using a special instrument brought from another hospital. The infection coupled with the trauma from such extensive surgery caused too much stress on Scott’s heart. Doctors kept him unconscious so that his body might have time to heal, but they’d bring him out of that state every once in awhile to check his response. Each time they tried to wake him, he had less response.

As the days went by, family and friends began to drift back to their homes and responsibilities. Cindy and Jess, however, kept a constant vigil. When Bill and Andrea leaned over Scott to tell him they had to go home for a few days, a tear came out of his eye.

Nearly two weeks after Scott’s initial surgery, he was transported to Tufts Medical Center in Boston, in the hopes that he might get well enough to receive a heart transplant. He was hooked up to a machine that would pump his heart for him, and he had two additional surgeries there, to no avail.

On Oct. 22, Jess called Bill and Andrea in New York. “There’s nothing more they can do,” she said. “I think you better come out.” She told her parents to bring the kids as quickly as they could. She called Scott’s co-workers, and one or two of her friends. And then she sat at her husband’s bedside for four hours, waiting for everyone to arrive. She held his hand, rubbed his arm, and looked at him, imprinting his face into her memory as best she could.

“You would think four hours would seem like forever, but it didn’t,” Jess says. “It went by so fast.”

Nearby, Scott’s mother sat and prayed, still clinging to hope. “I prayed so hard for him,” she says. “I asked God to take me and spare him.”

When Mabel and Luc arrived, Jess pulled them into a conference room, bent down and told them it was time to say goodbye to Daddy. Shortly after 2 a.m., with loved ones all assembled, Bill gently told Jess it was time to let him go.

“The hardest thing I had to do in my entire life was to tell Jess it was time to turn the machines off,” Bill says. Scott Marc Chenier died peacefully on Oct. 23, 2009, surrounded by his family. He was 35. He was gone within 20 minutes of removing all the tubes and wires that had been helping to keep him alive. Jess was thankful that Mabel got to see her Dad one last time without all that stuff attached to him.

“His face was a little puffy, but otherwise he looked exactly like himself,” Jess says. “All his scars had healed.”

For Dr. Haffajee, who’d cared for Scott half his life, it was worse than losing a patient.

“Losing Scott was a tremendous blow. He was like an extension of our family with my nurse, and me — the Cheniers were like part of our family. He was extremely pleasant, soft-spoken, always smiling. And he never complained, even when he was very seriously ill at the end. He had enormous trust in us. But we became helpless,” he says. “We tried our best.”

Two days later, grief-stricken and weary, Bill, Andrea, Jess and Cindy shuffled into Singleton-Healy Funeral Home in Queensbury to make the arrangements for Scott’s funeral. In a twist of fate, the funeral director on duty that day was Connie Goedert, who’d made a career move from part-time EMT to full-time funeral director several years before.

“It was something, being there when he technically died that time so long ago, and there I was again,” Connie says. “I did what I was trained to do that day, but there was an emotional tie there that I didn’t recognize in the beginning. It was difficult with Scott because, you don’t take away from the family’s grief, but I felt like I had a connection with him too. Not like I knew him but … there was a connection that I make with what happened in that gym.”

Bill and Andrea felt that connection as well. After the funeral they sent Connie a letter, thanking her for giving them 17 more years with their son. Connie was touched by the gesture, and told Bill so the next time they saw each other, as they infrequently did since they were both members of the local Elks Lodge. From afar, Connie watched Bill slowly decline.

“That’s what tragedy does,” Connie says. “It takes more than one body, one soul.”

* * *

HEARTSICK: Despondent, typically from grief or loss of love.

“Right after Scott’s funeral I noticed a change in myself,” says Bill of his health’s deterioration. For one thing, he was mysteriously losing blood. A couple weeks after Scott’s funeral, he went to the hospital suffering from anemia and was given two units of blood. Just over a year later, in January 2011, it happened again, only that time his body required 11 units of blood to replace what was lost. Then again in March, he was rushed back to the hospital, and given seven more units.

Doctors were baffled. Test after test was done looking for the source of the blood loss. He had colonoscopies, two endoscopies, and two capsule endoscopies. The doctors also checked for ulcers, but found nothing. “Nothing,” Bill says. “Nothing, nothing, nothing. Where did it go?”

Doctors knew Bill’s heart muscle was thickening, becoming less supple and therefore unable to pump blood adequately through his body, a result of the hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Still, it seemed the loss of his son had shattered that vital organ in a way that doesn’t show up on an MRI.

In all respects he was, quite simply, dying from a broken heart.

By mid-April tests revealed he was definitely in need of a heart transplant. After doing some research, Bill and Andrea chose Tufts Medical Center as the hospital where Bill would hopefully get a new heart. They remembered what excellent care Scott had received there. That, coupled with Tufts’ exceptional standards and success rate for transplants, made their decision easy.

At Tufts, Bill was affixed with a pump that pushed medication directly into his heart to keep it pumping. He tried living with that at home for about a month, but when he returned to Boston in May, his heart failure specialist, Dr. David DeNofrio, said he wanted to keep closer tabs on his patient.

“I think it’s time you make your permanent residence right here,” Dr. DeNofrio said.

When Bill checked in at Tufts that May, he had no idea how long he’d be there. Available donor hearts were hard to come by, and his own heart’s weakness had put such a strain on his kidneys that now he needed a new kidney as well.

He stayed as busy as he could in a tiny hospital room hooked up to a special heart-monitoring medical device that kept him on a 9-foot leash, unable to even reach the bathroom. For Father’s Day his family gave him a small tablet computer, a portable DVD player and several movies. Bill, who calls himself “computer stupid,” spent time figuring out email and Facebook. And he started making phone calls for the fundraiser he and Andrea were planning to raise money for the National Transplant Assistance Fund, even though he hadn’t yet gotten a transplant and didn’t know when, or if, he might.

Andrea visited at least every other weekend, and the staff allowed her to stay right in Bill’s room. She made some of his favorite dishes and froze them in single-serving sizes, leaving them for the nurses to heat up for Bill when the retired chef’s palate couldn’t stand one more disappointing meal from the hospital cafeteria.

Inevitably, in the idle hours, Bill’s thoughts would turn to Scott. He’d think about the tear that came out of his boy’s eye at the sound of his father’s voice. And the pain of watching his son’s life silently drain from his body. And how here he was, in the same place, with the same genetic heart defect, waiting and hoping for a different outcome. He was at times just on the other side of the room from where Scott had been, just down the hall from where Scott had died.

It was at once both cruel and comforting to feel his son’s presence there.

One Sunday night two and a half months after Bill had arrived at Tufts, Dr. DeNofrio came breezing into his room. He looked like he had just gotten out of bed and thrown his clothes on.

“Well,” he said, “we have a heart and kidney.” Then he added, “You weren’t the first choice.” The woman who was first on the transplant list wasn’t healthy enough to take them; it was Bill’s lucky day. He was speechless. For the first time ever at Tufts Medical Center, Bill cried happy tears.

* * *

HEARTBEAT: A single pulsation of the heart; a person or thing providing or representing an animating or vital unifying force.

Andrea was in her bedroom laying out her work clothes that Sunday night when she heard a loud crash in the other room. A large framed picture, about 3 feet by 4 feet, had fallen off the wall. It landed on a counter stacked deep with framed family photos, but only knocked one onto the floor. Andrea bent down and picked it up; it was a picture of Scott, Jess and the kids. Less than 10 minutes later, the phone rang. “They found a heart,” Bill said, and for a moment she faltered. Scott’s smiling face from the photo was still fresh in her mind. Was this a sign that everything was all right, or that something was wrong? she wondered. Then Bill told her he wasn’t the first intended recipient, and this put her mind at ease: Fate had already intervened. “I knew then it was meant to be,” she says.

Andrea, along with several other loved ones, drove through the night to get to Boston from New York by dawn. Over a dozen people crowded into Bill’s room that morning, a bundle of nerves and excitement. Like the morning of Scott’s surgery two years before, nobody wanted to be too solemn with their goodbyes. When the moment came, Bill smiled. “See ya in awhile,” he said, then disappeared.

His old heart’s last job was to pump enough blood through his body to allow Bill to get off his gurney, walk over and hop up onto the operating table, where a team of surgeons and nurses were preparing to remove it. “What are you waiting for?” he asked the anesthesiologist when he was settled on the table. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

The surgery lasted about 12 hours, and Bill was unconscious for nearly 12 hours after that. When he came to, he was struck not by pain, but warmth. After years of his extremities being cold because of poor circulation, the warmth was overwhelming. He couldn’t speak or write, so when he got the nurse’s attention, he took her hand and tapped on her wedding ring. “Oh you want your wedding ring back?” she said, as they’d removed it for surgery. Bill shook his head, and kept tapping.

“Oh, you want your wife!” the nurse said. Within minutes, Andrea appeared with a smile on her face. The surgery had been a success.

Bill spent the next several days recovering from the procedure that had given him the heart and kidney of a young man. For most of that time he was in the cardiomyopathy unit where Scott had spent his final days. The father who had once paced the halls with worry now ambled down them with determination.

Soon after his surgery, he called Dr. Haffajee with the news.

“I was delighted,” Dr. Haffajee says. “You could tell just by speaking to him that there was a complete change in his voice. He was no longer weak, disabled.”

Just two weeks after his surgery, Bill was discharged. Since then he’s headed back to Tufts for tests weekly, then biweekly, to check for organ rejection. So far his body is accepting the new organs as his own, and doctors are thrilled with Bill’s progress.

“How can we mess with perfection,” DeNofrio told Bill at his last checkup.

Andrea, who for years worried silently that she wouldn’t have her partner to grow old with, is now excited for the future that lies before them. Both she and Bill say that Scott, and everything he went through, helped them through their ordeal.

“Without Scott we might not have known all the things to ask, and maybe we wouldn’t have ended up at Tufts. That’s where Scott helped us,” Andrea says. “It was hard to be in that Cath Lab where Scott was, and that Coronary Care Unit where Scott was, but at the same time it was a little bit comforting because you could still feel a closeness, one way or another.”

Jess couldn’t bring herself to go to Tufts for Bill’s surgery, but she’s thrilled that her children’s Pa has a new lease on life. Luc, now 7, still plays hockey. Mabel, 12, wears her dad’s old T-shirts to bed. The kids and Jess talk about Scott often. She says she cries when she needs to, and she still sometimes writes to her husband in her journal.

Jess thinks back to how scared she and Scott were all those years ago at the prospect of a heart transplant, and how she would do anything for that opportunity today.

“Scott was only 35, and he’s got two little kids,” she says. “I wouldn’t change anything for Bill, I’m so happy for him, but I wish Scott had had that chance.”

Perhaps nobody wishes that more than his father. It is difficult for Bill to visit Jess and the kids at their house; he’s always hoping to see Scott come around the corner.

“He was almost like my best friend,” Bill says. “I could ease him, and he could ease me.”

One day shortly after he was home from the transplant surgery, Bill says he woke up from a nap and saw Scott sitting on the edge of his bed. The son leaned over and patted his father’s head and said, “Good boy.” And then he said, “You don’t need me anymore.” Bill closed his eyes, and when he opened them, Scott was gone.

He still wonders whether that was a dream, or something else. He also wonders a lot about the donor, the young man who lost his life and in doing so gave Bill a new one. He’s in the middle of composing a thank-you letter to the donor’s family, which can be sent to them when he reaches the six-month mark after his transplant surgery.

“Living for 60 years with a heart problem and having it gone is overwhelming. To have somebody else’s heart is overwhelming too. I feel sorrow for the family,” Bill says, “but I thank the family.”

Like the organ donor’s family, Bill knows the sorrow of losing a son too young. He also understands that at birth, we are each given two hearts — the physical and the metaphysical. Through generations of hereditary heart trouble, his family has demonstrated that the metaphysical heart is more powerful than the physical one. And in one sweeping act of generosity, the donor’s family has done the same.

Before the surgery and even now, love and generosity have flowed toward Bill, from local businesses that gave to his fundraiser, and from strangers and friends who’ve offered words of encouragement. “It makes me feel great,” he says. “You’d be surprised what people do for people in need.”

He is now determined to carry on the living example of the generosity that beats inside him.

“I have a whole new outlook on life. I’m trying to give more of myself, whether it’s to speak about organ donation or just help people out when they need it,” he says. “I just want to give as much as I can.”

©Robyn Passante, 2012
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