John Couch, 48, got new heart from living donor

November 17, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Clinton House made medical history in 1987, becoming the nation's first living organ donor when his healthy heart was transplanted by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital into the chest of John Couch, a Philadelphia accountant.

Mr. Couch, who later retired and moved to Punta Gorda, Fla., died Monday of heart failure at his home there. He was 48.

Mr. House, a 28-year-old Essex refrigeration mechanic who had cystic fibrosis, became a heart donor and a heart-lung recipient when he was given the heart and lungs of a brain-dead accident victim.

Mr. House died July 11, 1988, a little more than a year after his 17-hour transplant surgery, which was performed by Dr. William A. Baumgartner and Dr. Bruce A. Reitz of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"John's transplant was an example of quick-witted surgeons who saw an opportunity and seized it. They made it work and, in doing so, gave him years of life. It really was a great success," said Dr. Thomas Traill, a Hopkins cardiologist.

Mr. Couch came to Hopkins to obtain a second opinion after suffering congestive heart failure and was added to the heart donor list.

Mr. House and Mr. Couch formed a friendship that the House family continued with Mr. Couch and his family.

"I always felt as though a part of Clinton was still alive because his heart was inside of John," Mr. House's mother, Joyce Plesic, of Middle River said last week.

"They became fast friends, talked on the phone two or three times a week and, when they were in the hospital recuperating, enjoyed raising the devil like two little boys," she said.

The families exchanged letters, holiday greetings and pictures. When Mr. Couch came to Hopkins Hospital for checkups, the families got together to have dinner.

"It was a miracle. When I stop and think of it, I have to remember that it's Clint's heart that was keeping John alive, and it was a wonderful feeling," Mrs. Plesic said.

"Because of Clint, he was able to see his three children grown and graduate from high school, and one even from college."

Mrs. Plesic said she was "shocked by the news" of Mr. Couch's death. "It's like another part of me died. Probably no one else has ever experienced something like this. It's been a rough week," she said.

Mr. Couch, who was born in Philadelphia and raised in Levittown, Pa., earned a bachelor's degree in 1975 from Rider College in Trenton, N.J. He moved in 1989 from Yardley, Pa., near Philadelphia, to Punta Gorda.

"He led a normal life the last nine years," said his wife of 27 years, the former Peggy Grose.

"He never had any complications with his heart and did what he wanted."

Mrs. Plesic said, "As sad as I am about John's death, I keep trying to think how this gives hope to other people waiting for transplants."

Mr. Couch also created medical history with his two hearts.

Because more power was needed to circulate blood through Mr. Couch's congested lungs, Mr. House's heart initially was installed on top of Mr. Couch's.

"I think he was the only person in the country who had two hearts," Mrs. Couch said.

In June, Mr. Couch developed lymphoma as a result of the immune-suppressant drugs he was taking.

No services are planned.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Couch is survived by two sons, Michael Couch and Ryan Couch of Punta Gorda; a daughter, Amy Couch of Punta Gorda; three brothers, Tom Couch of Pennsylvania, and Joseph Couch and Michael Couch, both of California; two sisters, Laura Muller of Medford, N.Y., and Patti Wetzel of California; and his mother, Laura Couch of Medford.

Donations may be made to the American Heart Association or the American Cancer Society.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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