A Heart to Give

A Heart to Give

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories of Faith

A Heart to Give

As I lay in bed on Thanksgiving Day 1989, my body wracked with pain, I found little to be thankful for. Some months earlier, I had broken my foot. Having been a world-champion steer wrestler on the rodeo circuit in my early years, I certainly didn’t worry over broken bones. The main problem was the inconvenience of the cast. But as the weeks went by, I began to experience intense pain. Finally, the cast was cut away, and the source of pain revealed. Somehow, the cast had cut the bottom of my foot, and since I was a diabetic, gangrene had quickly set in. After several days of intravenous antibiotics, I went home, but the wound never healed. The searing, throbbing pain was unbearable, and my temperature escalated. I knew what the next step would be.

The following morning, an emergency surgical team prepared to amputate my right leg, just below the knee. Though I had protested in the beginning, now I just wanted to live and to be out of pain. After the surgery, I gradually moved from a wheelchair to crutches and often hopped around on my good leg, until a blister appeared on my foot. Six months later, I was a forty-four-year-old double amputee. I had felt sorry for myself after the first amputation, but it was nothing compared to the anger and rage I experienced with the second.

When I was a youngster, I had joined a little country church and thought that took care of my religion. I didn’t talk to God the way some people claim to. I took care of myself and figured most folks would be better off if they did the same. What I learned about God growing up was that He was to be feared, and I had experienced enough fear in my own home. I certainly didn’t need more from some deity.

But now, as a grown man trying to cope with two “stubs” instead of legs, I even lost my fear of God. As I sat in the middle of the bathroom floor, unable to raise myself up, I cursed God violently. So what if He struck me with lightning, could that be much worse? Maybe I wasn’t the best person in the world, but I didn’t deserve this.

Eventually, I was fitted with two prostheses and spent time in rehabilitation learning to walk again. By 1995, I was back to a fairly normal lifestyle, with a good job, wife and family. Then, I began having chest pains. The pain was familiar. When I was thirty-one, I had quintuple heart bypass surgery. Years later, stents were placed in the arteries. What else could they possibly repair? Increasing pain and total exhaustion forced me into the hospital. Finally, the doctor recommended a heart transplant, even though my medical problems posed a great risk. Having been a gambler in my rodeo days, I didn’t like the odds they were giving me, but I saw no other option.

Being accepted by a transplant team was no easy task. As a diabetic and double amputee, some teams wouldn’t even consider me. And even if I was accepted, I would have to go on a waiting list, which could take months or years. Even if I got lucky and received a heart, there were no guarantees that the surgery would work.

When I had the bypass surgery years earlier, I was put on a heart-lung machine to keep my heart pumping during surgery, and then an electrical impulse restarted my heart to function on its own. But this time, someone else’s heart would be placed in my body. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the only One who could make a brand new heart start beating was Almighty God, and I figured I had alienated Him completely the day I cursed Him. I was tired of the anger and bitterness, and didn’t want to live what life I had left raging against my circumstances. So, I made my peace with God.

Eventually, I was accepted as a transplant candidate, and on the day after Christmas, I went into the hospital with hope and apprehension to wait for a new heart. It was like living with life and death at the same time. One minute I thought of being healthy again; the next minute the reality surfaced that I might die.

Finally, on January 22nd, the doctor told me a heart had been located. I gathered my family together. As they prepared me for surgery, I felt complete peace.

Suddenly, the doctor came in and told us there was a problem. Hesitantly, he said, “We have a seventeen-year-old boy on a ventilator who probably won’t make it through the night without a heart.” He paused awkwardly. “I don’t know how to ask you this, but would you consider giving him the heart?” He emphasized that the heart was originally intended for me, and it was my choice. I could keep it, since there was no way of knowing when another heart would become available or how long my body would make it without one.

From the moment I was notified a heart had been donated, I had gone from disbelief to elation, to apprehension to acceptance, and now I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. How do I choose who lives or dies?

The tough part was knowing what my family would go through if I didn’t receive another heart. I didn’t want to make my wife a widow. I wanted to live and see my grandchildren grow up. The easy part was knowing who needed the heart most.

It was the toughest and the easiest decision I ever made.

The young man survived the surgery, and one week later I received my new heart, an even better physiological match for my body than the previous one. Several months later, one of the doctors told me that he knew of no one in medical history who had chosen to give up a donor heart to someone else.

That was seven years ago. Today, it takes extra energy for me to walk, but I enjoy going places and meeting people. I wear shorts everywhere I go, no matter what the season or weather. I want people to see my prostheses and ask questions, so I can tell them about my medical miracles. When they ask, I tell them that God gave me new legs so I could walk with Him. Then, I explain how He gave me two new hearts—this physical heart transplanted into my chest cavity and a spiritual one deep in my soul, which overflows with His love.

~John Patterson as told to Louise Tucker Jones

Chicken Soup for the Caregiver’s Soul

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