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Professor Whaley Has a Heart

April 1, 2010 | Faculty

By Douglas Whaley

My former students may be interested to know that I’ve had a heart transplant and life is very good indeed.

My heart had been failing since 1999 when I developed atrial fibrillation. For ten years I was treated by a cardiologist at The Ohio State University’s Ross Heart Hospital, and it became all too clear that things were bad. 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 2009, I was told that the transplant would likely take place in 2010, probably in the spring. So the November phone call (I was working at the computer) was a major surprise: “Mr. Whaley, we have a heart for you.” It was the most startling sentence I’ve ever heard in my life! Of course, as the floor seemed to collapse from under me, my old heart began beating like a kettle drum. It is one thing to contemplate a heart transplant next year and another to learn it will be TODAY!

I arrived at the hospital, and at 7:30 p.m. was wheeled off to the operating room. The surgeon who performed the operation was Dr. Benjamin 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, as mine did). The heart they put in came from Riverside Hospital, just around the corner from Ross Heart Hospital (and that is good — some hearts are harvested from as far away as New York). The surgeon who fetched the heart from Riverside came by days later and told me that when he first saw it, he thought “this is a beautiful heart.” It began beating as soon as the blood flow was restarted, which, I’m told, is rare — normally there has to be some outside stimulation. A nurse who watched the operation said the heart they took out was three times bigger than the new one. I was home and happy eight days later. Yes: eight days! The 21st century is a marvel.

Through Lifeline of Ohio, which promotes organ donations (and I’m glad I have always been an organ donor or I’d be hugely embarrassed to be a transplantee), I’ve been anonymously corresponding with the donor’s family. Their son was a young graduate student whose heart I received. His parents’ letter to me described his personality and accomplishment in detail (among other things, for example, he was a champion amateur chef), and included a selection from his brother’s eulogy. I’m not usually easy given to tears, but I was a weepy mess by the time I read the letter and — this was the hardest part — looked at the photo of the handsome smiling young man cleaning up after the Thanksgiving feast he created in 2008. That was the last Thanksgiving he ever saw, since I received his heart the Monday before that holiday in 2009.

It’s all been like science fiction. I have gone from dying to feeling normal. Since I’m back to working out regularly and feel terrific, I’m becoming guilty about still using handicapped parking spaces, and (sigh) suppose I’ll have to stop now that the icy weather is behind us. Dean Alan Michaels has noted all this, and asked me to fill in teaching Contracts for four weeks when my replacement on the faculty, Professor Larry Garvin, slipped on the ice in February and suffered a very serious break to his femur bone. Back to the classroom I went and enjoyed it as much as duck returning to water.

It’s a place where I always felt alive.