Happy in classroom, waiting for a heart

Teacher: Steve Ferralli has returned to Arundel's Southern Middle with a pump in his chest and a cell phone strapped to his side, waiting for a call if a heart becomes available.

September 05, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The way Steve Ferralli teaches -- dashing down aisles, firing questions, cracking jokes -- he makes so much noise you can hardly hear the swooshing of his artificial heart pump.

And the way he moves -- with energy and purpose -- you'd never guess he left Washington Hospital Center slightly more than a month ago with only the right side of his heart functioning. He was there for five months, getting treatment for inflammation of the heart muscle.

With the left side of his heart badly deteriorated, Ferralli is relying on a 5-pound mechanical pump, about the size of a water canteen, that surgeons implanted in his stomach cavity. Hanging just below his heart, the pump draws blood from the failing left ventricle, and with each swoosh, a diaphragm in the device propels the blood to the aorta.

It will do until a new heart can be found.

Ferralli, 46, also wears a cellular telephone strapped to his waist at all times, always ready for the call that may save his life. And he wears a fanny pack with a small computer that controls the pump, and the two heavy batteries that power it.

With this extra baggage, Ferralli returned last week to Southern Middle School in Lothian, where he taught technical education for 25 years before leaving the school and entering the hospital in February.

"It was almost like I couldn't believe I was back," he said yesterday. "I thought I would never get out of the hospital. I couldn't move. I couldn't eat. I couldn't do anything."

Now he's teaching five classes a day, showing pupils how to use everything from computers to cutting boards. He couldn't be happier.

"When you do what I've done for 25 years, to finally get back to it puts things in perspective," Ferralli said. "I feel really comfortable, like I'm in my own back yard, amongst friends."

Ferralli's wife, Sharon, is the principal at Lake Shore Elementary School in Pasadena. She said getting back into the classroom has been a tremendous boost for her husband of 22 years.

"All along, all he wanted was to come home to be with his family and be able to go back to work," she said. "For the longest time, I wondered if he'd ever be able to do that. Now he's done both."

Teachers and pupils at Southern Middle also are thrilled to get him back, and have taken measures to put him at ease. Principal William J. Callaghan hired a full-time substitute to assist Ferralli in the classroom and be ready to take over should that call come.

"Teachers themselves are hard to come by," Callaghan said. "Finding good ones is like striking gold, and Steve's a diamond."

About a dozen Southern Middle teachers gave up one of the last days of their summer vacation last month to get training from Washington Hospital Center nurses in how to respond if Ferralli's new pump malfunctions. Made by Thoratec Corp., the device has a two-year warranty.

Two of the teachers received the highest level of training, spending several days at the hospital to be certified as Ferralli's "companions." If the mechanical pump fails, they can manually pump Ferralli's heart until help arrives.

One is Barry Clark, who has taught in the classroom next to Ferralli's for 25 years. The two are close friends, and Clark is godfather to Ferralli's son, Philip, 16.

"I was at the hospital a lot," Clark said, "and one day Steve looked at me and said, `I can't believe I taught my last day.' He didn't know what was going to happen."

Last week, on the first day of classes, Clark took Ferralli's picture during the morning ritual of signing in. "It's good to see him back," Clark said. "He has that personality that bridges the generation gap."

One of Ferralli's pupils, seventh-grader Corey Preston, paid him the highest compliment: "He's really cool."

The school sent a letter home to parents of Ferralli's pupils, informing them of the teacher's condition and asking if they wanted their child moved to another class. No parents pulled their child.

This rural southern Anne Arundel County community has rallied around Ferralli. In May, 80 people donated blood in a drive in Ferralli's name. Another blood drive is planned this fall.

Pupils have raised money to donate to Washington Hospital Center. And everyone has gained awareness of the critical need for organ donors.

More than 76,000 people in the United States are on waiting lists for organs, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Last year, 22,827 people received organ transplants, but an estimated 5,500 died because organs weren't available.

"When someone's passed on, that's no time to ask their family for their organ," said Ferralli, who, not surprisingly, has become expert in the subject. "You need to make a decision way in advance. And the decision needs to be told to your family so they'll honor your wishes."

At the end of the day, Ferralli said, he feels weaker than before his hospital stay. He has to be careful in his classroom not to bump into anything, to avoid damaging the pump's computer.

But during one class last week, he raced through the room, introducing pupils to digital cameras, video cameras and floppy disks. The children paid rapt attention.

"He's pretty funny," said seventh-grader Matthew Stanley, 12, who signed up after his friends raved about the class last year. "We're lucky to have him back."

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