A Heart to Give

Posted by Louise Tucker Jones on 01/07/2013

John PattersonSeveral years ago I met John Patterson, an amazing man with a story to tell. In 1989 John was wearing a cast for a broken foot. A former world champion steer wrestler, John didn't flinch with broken bones, but something was causing intense pain. The cast was cut away and revealed a cut on the bottom of his foot. Being a diabetic, gangrene had set in. When several days of intravenous antibiotics didn’t heal the wound, an emergency surgical team amputated his right leg, just below the knee. After the surgery, he gradually moved from a wheelchair to crutches and often hopped around on his good leg until a blister appeared on that foot. Six months later, his left leg had to be amputated. 

Eventually, John was fitted with two prostheses and was back to a fairly normal lifestyle when he began having chest pain. When he was thirty-one years old, John had quintuple heart bypass surgery. Years later, stints were placed in the arteries. Now, the only thing doctors could recommend was a heart transplant, even though his medical problems posed a risk.

But first, he had to be accepted by a transplant team, which was no easy task. As a diabetic and double amputee, some teams wouldn't consider him. But eventually, he was accepted as a transplant candidate and on the day after Christmas, 1995, he went into the hospital to wait for a new heart while on IV medications.

Finally, on January 22, 1996, the doctor told John to get his family together. A donor heart had been located. John was prepared for surgery and felt complete peace, unlike the anger and bitterness he carried during the amputations. “I decided I didn’t want to live what life I had left raging against my circumstances,” said John. “I wanted to honor God.”

Suddenly, the doctor came into the room and said there was a problem, seeming uncertain how to approach John and his family. Finally, 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 then asked if John would consider giving the heart to the boy, emphasizing that the heart was originally intended for John and it would be his decision. He could keep it or give it away, not knowing when or if another heart would become available or how long his body would make it without one.

John describes his roller coaster of emotions. “How do you choose who lives or dies?” he asked. Then he stated, “It was the toughest and easiest decision I ever made. The tough part was knowing what my family would go through if I didn't receive another heart. The easy part was knowing who needed the heart most. Didn't a seventeen-year-old boy deserve life more than a forty-nine-year-old double amputee diabetic?”

The young man survived the surgery and one week later, John received a new heart, an even better physiological match for his body than the previous one. The doctor stated that he knew of no one in medical history who had chosen to give up a donor heart to someone else.

John enjoyed eleven years after the transplant, wearing shorts everywhere he went, no matter the season or weather.

“I want people to see my prostheses and ask questions so I can tell them about my miracles,” he said. “I tell them 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 that overflows with His love. That's my greatest miracle, and I plan to share it with everyone I meet.”

I consider John Patterson a true champion. I was privileged to know him and to tell his story. During this new year may we follow John’s example and have hearts that overflow with God’s great love.

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