Middle school unites to aid teacher with heart problem

As instructor waits for new heart, pupils give blood and raise money

Regional

May 31, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

In 25 years as a technical education teacher at Southern Middle School in Lothian, Steve Ferralli barely made a dent in his sick time.

In February, though, that started to change. At first, he felt run-down, out of breath climbing a simple flight of stairs. He thought it must be the flu. His doctors learned it was something much worse. They told him it was cardiomyopathy - an inflammation of the heart muscle that has left him in need of a new heart.

In his years at Southern Middle School, Ferralli knew his pupils and co-workers cared about him, though such sentiment was usually reserved for when a former student returned to campus years later and told him that he had made an impact in some small way.

But the outpouring has been enormous in the weeks and months since Ferralli, 46, fell ill.

Hundreds of cards and letters have been sent to him at Washington Hospital Center, where he has spent the past eight weeks, much of it in bed after an operation to implant a mechanical pump to keep his heart going until a new one is found.

Last week, 80 people donated blood at the school at a drive in his name - blood that will go to Washington Hospital Center to replenish what Ferralli has used and to aid others. The blood drive was so successful, said seventh-grade math teacher Lisa A. Moore, that another is planned for the fall.

Also last week, the school's eighth-graders, who attend Southern High School in Harwood while the school is being enlarged, dedicated their annual walk-a-thon to Ferralli, with donations going to the hospital in his name. Before they began their laps around the track, pupils had raised $400. They were expecting more to pour in.

"It's overwhelming," Ferralli said last week in a telephone interview. "I never expected the kids to be that supportive."

Ferralli's wife of 22 years, Sharon, principal of Lake Shore Elementary School in Pasadena, sends out what Southern Middle Principal Bill Callaghan called "daily Steve-A-Grams" that update his progress.

The list of those who receive it is so long that America Online officials tried to block her from sending it - they thought she was distributing junk mail, Moore recalled.

The Ferrallis met at Southern Middle when she was a speech pathologist and he was the tech-ed teacher. Steve Ferralli is a native of Washington, Pa., near Pittsburgh and a graduate of Salem College in West Virginia. The Ferrallis have two children, Philip, 16, and Bethany, 14. He coaches his son's soccer team, advises the school yearbook and helped develop the school's Web page.

"He's touched so many people's lives," said Albert C. Miller, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Southern Middle who is among his closest friends. "You meet someone like Steve maybe once in your lifetime.

"I've never heard one person in 25 years say anything bad about him. He always thinks of everyone else first."

Which is why Ferralli isn't shying away from the attention his heart is receiving. He hopes that the publicity will help not only himself but also others waiting for transplants. He wants everyone who hears his story to consider becoming an organ donor and to discuss it with their families.

Ferralli is one of 22 people in the area on a waiting list for a heart; one of 76,000 people who are waiting for organs nationwide. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, each day about 60 people receive a transplant, but about 15 who are waiting die because organs aren't available.

He has become aware of the issues facing those who need transplants. Did you know, he asked, that even if you say you want to donate your organs and have it on your driver's license, that your family can veto your decision when the time comes? "People die every day, and it's tragic, but there are so many organs going to waste that could be donated and people could live," he said.

Yet when Miller visits, Ferralli doesn't talk about organ donation or wallow in his illness. "He's not talking about needing a heart," Miller said. "He's worrying about his wife, his children, everyone else."

His former pupils, however, are worrying about him.

That was clear Wednesday during the walk-a-thon, in which pupils walked lap after lap on a gorgeous day. Many had solicited pledges, earning a few more dollars for Washington Hospital Center with every completed oval.

"It is a good idea because it has something to do with Mr. Ferralli," said 14-year-old Brittany Stewart. "He was like a cool teacher who wasn't rude to us. He treated us as a person, not, oh, you know, just a student."

The past few days have been good. He is getting his strength back. But he still can't eat and gets his nourishment intravenously. His spirits, though, are pushing higher.

"Every day is a gift," his wife said.

His wife said worries about the future can be consuming. "They say some people lay down and die," she said. "I'm sorry, that's not in either one of our personalities."

Ferralli hopes he will be back at school by September. He can live with the mechanical pump.

But he'd rather go with a new heart.

"It could be any moment," he said. "It could be this afternoon. It's a waiting game. You just sit back and hope."

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