change of heart
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Change of Heart
September, 2009, Page 126
Within months of his lifesaving heart transplant, Bill Wohl began working out and competing in triathlons around the world.
“That Friday, I was going away – away like dead,” Wohl explains. “My family, the doctor, they all told me, ‘If you stay here, we’re going to end up planting you in a box.’”
Dr. Allan Reinfeld, Wohl’s Scottsdale-based cardiologist, began to care for Wohl that year and has done so ever since. He seconds the patient’s diagnosis.
“He was as close to death as you could come,” Reinfeld says. “Literally, he got into the intensive care unit (in Tucson) and he died right there in front of everybody. Luckily he wasn’t in the ambulance. He happened to be in the right place. He got there, and that’s when everything happened.”
By everything, Reinfeld means the shutting down of Wohl’s vital organs. It seems those seven hours of compromised circulation and the ensuing half-year of ailments had killed enough cardiac muscle to do lasting damage to Wohl’s heart, liver and kidneys. The only solution? A thoracotomy – an excavation of Wohl’s insides that involved removing his heart and installing a CardioWest temporary Total Artificial Heart.
If the surgical procedure and the name of the device sound intimidating, the machine more than lives up to its scary billing: Wohl spent the next month in a coma and a total of 159 days attached to a 400-pound control panel that hummed like a washing machine while it pumped his blood for him. Wohl describes awakening to this new reality as “horrendous and extremely painful.” Not only that, but his odds of leaving the hospital alive looked dismal.
“The doctors were hoping that maybe they could save me,” is how he puts it now. “At worst they thought I would give them some good data. I was their test case.… They were always waiting for me to die.”
The waiting didn’t end there. Wohl was placed on the list for a heart transplant, but his teetering health made him a lousy candidate. To increase his chances, Wohl’s doctors put him on as much of a workout regimen as he could handle. As he recalls it, his first trip to the UMC gym, 400-pound tub in tow, lasted all of nine minutes, after which Wohl “slept for two days.”
Photo courtesy Stan and Paula Brady
When Hollywood stuntman Brady Michaels suffered a deadly fall in 2000, his heart went to an ailing Bill Wohl.
While the patient spent months working in rehab to gain strength and the nearly 80 pounds he had lost since being in the hospital, a Hollywood stuntman named Brady Michaels was at work, too, not quite 40 miles down the road, in Benson.
Michaels – who was born Michael Brady – had been hired by the UPN TV show I Dare You: The Ultimate Challenge to paraglide from the top of one moving train boxcar to another. Daring as that sounds, it wasn’t the stunt that harmed the aerial dive wizard but a freak accident. While Michaels, 36, was up on a ladder checking some rigging, he took a bad step down and slipped. He fell, struck his head on some river rock and suffered massive skull fractures.
Four days later, on February 19, 2000, Brady Michaels, who had made the Guinness Book of World Records as a skydiver, was pronounced brain dead after that sad, simple 15-foot fall. The last beat of Michaels’ heart inside his own chest is truly where Bill Wohl’s story begins.
The late stuntman and the patient with the manmade ticker were a match for blood type and body size. This, along with the fact that donated hearts have roughly four hours to survive and Wohl was nearby when Michaels died, put Wohl in the right place at the right time. A team of UMC surgeons implanted Michaels’ heart inside Wohl, transferring heartbeats from one man to another in the ultimate relay race.
Nine years later
, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the donor’s mother, Paula Brady, has pride in her voice as she discusses the gift her son gave Bill Wohl. What her boy did – it wasn’t a fluke, some hasty decision, or something Paula and her husband, Stan, decided to do on their son’s behalf. No, the boy they knew as Mike had planned this all along.
“We have a handwritten composition, for some reason I saved it, that Mike wrote back in the fifth grade,” Paula explains. “He wrote about his eyes. His eyes were two different colors, very distinctive.… In the composition, he ended by saying that someday, if he died, he hoped somebody would benefit by looking through his two different color eyes.… He thought it was a great idea and he followed through. He had two different donor cards that he carried, and the last time I talked to the organ donation network folks in Arizona, they told me he had helped over 50 people.”
The help Bill Wohl got can only be described with one word.
“Life,” says Wohl. “Brady gave me life. I couldn’t have gotten a better heart. He was so young and so healthy.”
Not even two months after the surgery, Wohl was out of the hospital and well enough to attend his daughter Jennifer’s 18th birthday party. Finally back on his feet, Wohl saw his life began to change. It’s as if Brady Michaels didn’t simply give Wohl his heart; he also gave him a different outlook on what belonged at the heart of his life.
“I’ve become a lot more feeling and a more caring person. Brady, that was his persona,” Wohl says. “I was a cutthroat businessman…and throw in being a New York Jew on top of that…. I’m not that guy anymore.”
Wohl also believes he’s adopted more than just Brady’s empathetic nature: There’s his newfound love of Sade, a favorite singer of his donor, and the way he’s started compulsively drumming on things like Brady had done as a form of release.
Wohl’s release? Working out and competing. By the summer of 2000, Wohl began to call the gym his second home. And by 2002, he began to race. First, Wohl joined Transplant Team Arizona and tried his luck at a walk/run event in Phoenix. That summer, he traveled to Orlando, Florida, for the first of his four trips to the United States Transplant Games. The two medals he won for cycling, says Wohl, were soon packed up and shipped across the country – one for his donor’s mother and the other for Brady’s brother, Chris.
The gift felt miniscule in comparison to what Wohl has been given. “It’s the ultimate gift, to give someone a second chance to breathe, much less to work, play, have fun, travel…. There’s no way to put [my gratitude] into words,” he says.
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