Dallas, TX –
When I was in school, a friend's dad died from a heart attack and I remember her asking our teacher if the heart and the soul were the same thing. Her father had been waiting for a heart transplant when he died - something relatively new then- and she wondered if someone else's heart meant her father would get someone else's soul. It was a fascinating topic for sixth graders, believe me.
Teacher didn't know what to say. So my friend asked her mother. My pal reported back that her mother said she was glad the father had gone ahead and died before the transplant - at least he was in heaven wearing his own heart. Turned out, it had been too risky to consider the spiritual implications of getting someone else's heart transplanted into his body; my friend's mother had always been against it. "How can anyone get to heaven with someone else's heart inside 'em?" She said it would just confuse God about who was comin' up there to meet Him and God knows we sure don't want to confuse Him or any of the bureaucrats at the Pearly Gate.
My goodness, if God was confused in the sixties...
Walking home from school that day I saw someone painted "GOD IS DEAD" on my neighbor's fence. I remember wondering if maybe God had killed himself because people were threatening to get new hearts just to confuse Him.
At the time, some people thought heart transplants presented moral and ethical issues and spiritual questions. I don't like to admit this. But I can tell you it was decades before I signed my donor card. I am not making excuses; it was all so scary to ponder. Ultimately I signed my donor card because of the first transplant patient and the first donor's parent. I signed in honor of them. They were brave and I admire such courage - I don't have that much courage.
After Dr. Michael DeBakey died, I felt compelled to reread One Life by Dr. Christiaan Barnard, a book about the first heart transplant and, just as important to me and to the world, I believe, the story of the first transplant patient and the first donor family.
In 1967, Dr. Barnard and the 30 members of his team transplanted the heart of a 25-year-old woman, who was hit by a car while crossing a street, into the body of a man in Cape Town, South Africa. He lived for only 18 days after the operation. For my money, those two people changed the world just as much as Barnard and DeBakey. Can you imagine being as brave as the first heart transplant patient? Or the parent of the first donor?
I signed my card so my parents would never have to go through making a decision like that. With all the superstitious fears surrounding heart transplants back then, I know others waited to sign their cards. I hope they're not still waiting.
Angela Wilson is a playwright and artistic director of Theatre Quorum in Dallas.
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