Lothian teacher returns to work with new heart, but same soul

Transplant kept instructor away from pupils, school

January 08, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Steve Ferralli returned to Southern Middle School in Lothian yesterday with a new heart but the same soul - full of the energy, warmth and humor that have marked his 26-year teaching career.

"Mr. Ferralli's back!" some pupils shouted as they entered his classroom. They had not seen him since September, when he abruptly left school one morning to rush to Washington Hospital Center for a heart transplant.

After two weeks in the hospital and four months at home, the technical education teacher returned to the classroom yesterday.

"It's almost like I never left," he said, repairing compasses during a break between classes. "When you've been doing it as long as I have, you just pick up where you left off and keep on rolling."

Anne Arundel County school officials say Ferralli is the only teacher they know of to return to the classroom after a heart transplant. But for Ferralli, 47, there was never any doubt that he would be back.

He wanted to return sooner - he was driving just five weeks after the transplant - but his doctors said his immune system needed time to rebuild. Ferralli knows that schools are hotbeds for germs, but he is not too worried.

"I'm not going to try and live in a bubble," he said. "I'm just going to carry on as best I can - and maybe keep my distance [from the pupils] a little bit."

But yesterday, as his pupils worked on a drafting exercise, he buzzed around the workstations, picking up compasses and T-squares and showing the children how it's done.

"I need help, Mr. Ferralli," one boy said.

"Well, there's a mental institution right up the road," he joked.

His easy manner has made technical education the second-most popular elective at Southern Middle, behind physical education. More than half of the school's pupils take the course, many because older siblings and friends raved about it.

"My brother had Mr. Ferralli last year, and he liked him a lot," said seventh-grader Bobby Gibbons, 12. "We're happy he's back."

Ferralli has spent his entire career teaching technical education at Southern Middle, about 20 minutes south of Annapolis. He was hardly ever sick until February, when he started feeling run-down and short of breath. His doctors diagnosed cardiomyopathy - an inflammation of the heart muscle.

He was in the hospital for five months, finally leaving in July after doctors had implanted an artificial heart pump in his chest. It would do for a few months, doctors said, but ultimately he'd need a new heart.

By late August, Ferralli had resumed teaching at Southern Middle, with the pump in his chest and a cell phone strapped to his waist. On Sept. 7, it rang during his first-period class.

"I knew it was the hospital," he recalled yesterday. Southern Middle's other technical education teacher, Barry Clark, drove Ferralli to Washington Hospital Center. The heart was found to be a perfect match for Ferralli, and he was in surgery that evening.

While a long-term substitute teacher taught his class, Ferralli's school and the Lothian community rallied around him. They held fund-raisers and blood drives and walk-a-thons, and sent hundreds of cards and letters.

"He's a good role model for the children," said Southern Middle Principal William J. Callaghan. "Finding good people in any job is hard. Finding good people who want to be teachers is even harder. Steve's good people and a good teacher."

Ferralli's wife of 22 years, Sharon, is principal of Lake Shore Elementary in Pasadena. They live in Calvert County with their two children, Philip, 17, and Bethany, 15.

Since Ferralli fell ill, his wife has been sending out regular e-mail messages to a growing list of friends. Last week, after she sent a message to more than 200 people, America Online cut off her service. They thought she was distributing junk mail.

But she got her service restored, and she was planning on sending another message last night to let her husband's friends know that he had returned to the classroom.

"He just loves teaching," Sharon Ferralli said. "He couldn't wait to go back. He'll feel like a real person again."

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