Soon Dickson's room was full. Jan and Shannon were there, of course, and so were Dickson's mother, sister and brother. Everyone else in Room C320 was eating pizza and hugging, but Dickson was quiet. The heart, from a healthy, 26-year-old man, sounded ideal, but doctors couldn't be certain until they opened the donor's chest.
Late that afternoon, Dickson told his family goodbye. Idzi wheeled him to the seventh-floor operating room. "This is a new birth for you," she said, kissing him on his cheek.
In the building next door, the surgical team carefully sawed through the donor's sternum and separated the ribs. Now the powerfully beating heart, kept pumping by machines, was exposed. Dr. Joshua Sonett performed the final test: He let it thump against his hand as he felt for bruises or hardness that would indicate coronary disease.
He reached for a phone: "It's a go."
In the crowded waiting room, Shannon couldn't sit still. She asked her cousins to accompany her on a walk. They circled the hospital, then headed toward Camden Yards. As Shannon stared at the darkened stadium, she thought about all the games her father, a devoted Orioles fan, had missed this year.
When she was a child, his limitations made her angry. But by the time she was a teen-ager, she felt only sadness for him. It wasn't until she was about 16 that she realized the extent of his illness. They were fishing together when he silently handed her his rod. He could no longer reel in his catch.
At 8 p.m., Dr. Stephen Downing attached Dickson to a heart-lung bypass machine. Then his scalpel moved to cut the old heart free. For the first time, the full extent of the damage was visible: The flabby heart was double normal size, and shot with black where small attacks had struck.
The new heart, chilled in a cooler, was hurried along the corridor connecting the two buildings. Painstakingly, doctors connected it to Dickson's veins and arteries, using hundreds of delicate stitches. A little after midnight, they turned off the bypass machine and watched the heart as it began to move.
Jan Dickson gripped her husband's hand as he lay in the recovery room. She couldn't stop staring at the monitor above his head, showing steady, even, perfect peaks of green. "It's over, George," she said again and again.
Judy Idzi stopped by her patient's room frequently during the next few days. He was recovering beautifully. Already, his ventilator had been removed and he was taking a few steps. One day, Idzi looked in the doorway and saw Dickson lying in bed, with Shannon at his side. Her head rested on her father's chest, and the two were silent.
After a moment, Shannon noticed Idzi. She smiled shyly.
"I'm listening to my dad's heart," she said.
When Dickson was finally home, he remembered his final days at the hospital. How Idzi had hugged him goodbye and turned away to hide her tears. How that first gulp of fresh air had tasted.
So many surprises awaited him on the drive home: the sign at the Elks Lodge -- "Welcome Home, George!" -- and the gas station that had sprung up on a once-empty corner. Parked in their driveway was the school bus Jan drove, filled with dozens of helium balloons.
There were special dinners, and visitors bearing flowers, and the telephone seldom stopped ringing. It was wonderful to know so many people cared. But Dickson found himself craving something else.
All he had ever wanted was to be ordinary. And to keep a promise made long ago.
On an unseasonably warm winter afternoon, he and Shannon left the house and walked across the street, onto a nearby grassy field. They spread apart until many yards separated them, then turned to face each other.
Shannon raised her arm and threw a softball to her father. He caught it and sent it back. Under the bright sunlight, the ball arced back and forth.
Pub Date: 2/08/99