Picnickers take every day to heart

June 10, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

If ever there were picnickers who could truly appreciate yesterday's warm, late-spring breezes, sunny blue skies and quiet Howard County scenery, it was the group who gathered in Patapsco State Park.

"Didn't God bless us with a wonderful day today?" Carolyn Kramer asked the 50 people gathered around her.

For 22 years, every day has been wonderful for Kramer, because she's alive - thanks to an anonymous donor's heart.

This was the Annual Heart Transplant Picnic, attended by about two dozen heart recipients - "transplants," as they call themselves - and their relatives.

As they greeted one another with hugs and smiles, more than one proudly patted his chest and said, "Still ticking," in response to "How are you?"

They dined on roast beef sandwiches, pasta salads and Swedish meatballs, sipping diet sodas, water and tea.

They giggled like schoolchildren as they posed for their group photo. As he tried to arrange them, one recipient's husband urged them to "put your right shoulder out," prompting Kramer and others to break into the "Hokey Pokey."

"Of all the organ transplant groups, I think we're the happiest," said Myra Fine, president of the Heart Transplant Foundation, which organized the picnic.

The group has about 250 members who were patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital or the University of Maryland Medical Center, the two area hospitals that perform transplants.

Fine wears a red, heart-shaped pin (the biological kind, not the cartoon) and drives a car with a "heart recipient" license plate frame. She's had hers for 10 years now.

Until she was 50, Fine was happy, healthy and active, a competitive roller skater with a collection of medals who managed Skateland Columbia for three years.

The she noticed her skates were getting heavier and heavier. One night, after 10 laps on the rubber floor of the rink, she went home, took a shower and went into total heart failure.

Like many heart failure victims, Fine said her doctors don't know exactly why it happened. It's possible, she said, that a virus weakened her heart muscle.

She spent four years in and out of hospitals, often too weak to walk from her bedroom to her kitchen without resting on the chairs she had lined up along the route.

Eventually, she moved into Hopkins Hospital, where she lived for a month until she learned she would receive a new heart. "I was terrified and ecstatic at the same time," she said.

On Jan. 5, 1997, she had her transplant.

Carolyn Kramer is one of the longest-living heart transplant recipients in the country and says her doctor believes she is a rare "chimera," meaning her body is now composed of two genetically different types of cells - and it has accepted the new heart as her own.

Kramer's transplant, which occurred when she was 33 and had three children younger than 4 years old, has enabled her to watch her youngsters grow up and to teach others about the importance of being an organ donor.

At the next table sat Steve Barnes, one of 55 Maryland patients and 2,700 in the country awaiting a heart transplant, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

The 55-year-old Harpers Ferry, W.Va., resident and Hopkins patient discovered his heart trouble three years ago during preoperative testing for a double hernia. He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy - an airborne virus had attacked his heart muscle.

Barnes has been on the donor list for two years and has been called twice for a possible transplant. The first time, doctors discovered the donor heart was damaged. The second time, Barnes lost the heart to a sicker patient. "I feel that it's going to happen," Barnes said of the transplant.

He smiled and joked with his wife yesterday, and many of the recipients told him he looked too good to need a new heart. But Barnes said he tires easily and has trouble breathing.

That's how 67-year-old Harry "J.R." Wooten spent most of his life. Rheumatic fever at age 16 permanently damaged his heart valves. In June 2002, he received a new heart, but he kept a piece of the old one - his aortic valve, which he encased in a pendant and wears around his neck.

Kramer and Wooten don't know their donors.

When Kramer had her transplant, it was taboo to ask about the donor. Today hospitals encourage the contact. She knows only that her heart came from a young woman who died May 29, 1985, in Fairfax, Va.

Wooten wrote to thank his donor's family through Living Legacy, an organization that acts as a liaison between donors and recipients. The family chose not to respond, and Wooten said he does not want to force the issue. All he knows is that his heart came from a 16-year-old who died in Athens, Ga.

Wooten calls him "my gladiator."

Fine knows her donor and said she and the woman's grandmother have corresponded and exchanged photographs. "It took me nine years to talk to the donor's family," Fine said. "Their loss is so great."

The heart transplant recipients have begun making a "donor thank-you quilt," with squares to honor specific donors, if recipients know them, or general thank-you squares for those who remain anonymous.

Terry Ingram, a jovial man who boasts that he can run two miles, said he has cherished the gift. "I really appreciate living," he said. "I don't just pass the time. Not a day that goes by that I don't live life."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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