Larry Wineke and the gift of 18 years of life

Calvert Hall teacher and coach underwent heart transplant in 1995

(Handout photo )
October 05, 2013|Dan Rodricks

Amazing how a name can trigger a sudden burst of memories. "Hello, this is Ryan Wineke," a voice on the phone said. The name is pronounced "Win-ek-ee." As soon as I heard it, I thought of Larry Wineke, the only man I ever knew by that name. I assumed he must have run out of time.

"You wrote a story about my dad 18 years ago," the young man on the phone said.

Indeed I had. Larry Wineke — Calvert Hall teacher and coach, big man, tough man and teddy bear — had a heart transplant at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 23, 1995.

He lived until Sept. 29, 2013, and pardon me for stopping here to express awe at modern medicine — the transplanting of a heart from one human to another, the extension of a man's life and the gifts that brings.

It meant that Ryan Wineke, just 8 when his father first became a candidate for a transplant, and Mike Wineke, who was 10, were able to grow up with their dad.

"He prayed that he would be able to see his boys graduate from Calvert Hall," Sue Wineke, his wife of 37 years, said the other day. "Well, he got to see a lot more than that. He has seen his boys grow into men, and he has held three gorgeous grandsons in his arms."

I first got into the Larry Wineke story because of buzz about him. His friends and relatives were raising money to pay for the surgery. There was a dance at the fire hall in Arbutus, and there were a spaghetti dinner at St. Rose of Lima School, rugby and lacrosse tournaments, and a gala at Calvert Hall with Larry King, talk show host and heart attack survivor. Sue Wineke says the transplant fund reached $70,000.

That kind of dates this story a bit. The age of Obamacare could mark the end of bake-sale health insurance — that is, the collecting of charity to keep someone alive. The Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions and, starting Jan. 1, it outlaws lifetime and yearly dollar limits on coverage of essential health benefits.

Back in the 1990s, the faculty and employees of Calvert Hall agreed to pay a little extra for health insurance so that, for Larry Wineke's sake, the school's plan would include transplant coverage. That's the kind of thing that happens when people are selfless, when they believe in the common good and in there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.

"We have so many people to thank," Sue Wineke said when we first spoke, 18 years ago. "Larry was on so many prayer lists that God probably got tired of hearing it and said, 'This [Thanksgiving 1995] is the day.'"

Larry was 42, a big man (6-foot-3 and 250 pounds) with a debilitating heart condition. By 1995, three years after doctors said he needed a transplant, Larry was unable to coach football or junior varsity baseball at Calvert Hall, and he hadn't been able to teach his freshman science class. When an appropriate donor was finally found, a Hopkins surgical team, led by Dr. Peter Greene, performed the transplant, giving Larry Wineke the heart of a 26-year-old accident victim. The surgery took five hours.

"Larry took one year off from teaching and coaching to recover and then jumped right back to work the following year," Sue Wineke said the other day. "He led as normal a life as one could under the circumstances. He had numerous hospital stays over the years due to infections and organ rejection, but within a week or two he was always home and back to work."

Mike Wineke, now 33, wrote in an email: "My father was a good man, honest, loving, tough. He would get up early and go work out with the Calvert Hall baseball team before school, teach all day, coach after school, get home late. He did this while raising my brother and me. He coached our baseball teams every summer for 10 years. He helped coach my son's travel baseball team.

"My father never showed his emotions to the public, even though he could not move some days or he felt sick. He always acted tough. He would go until he was forced to go to the hospital. He would recover and get right back into work and coaching."

Ryan Wineke, now 31, inherited his father's heart condition and had to have a transplant four years ago.

"My father was able to be there for my brother during a tough time in his life," Mike Wineke said. "He understood what [Ryan] was going through and protected him; he guided him back to a healthy state."

"The doctors assured us that treatment and medicine has improved greatly since Larry got his heart," Sue Wineke said. "They see Ryan living a healthy life for many years."

The memorial service for Larry Wineke is Sunday at 1 p.m. at Calvert Hall. In 1995, I wrote, "Long live the big man." Today I say, "Rest in peace."

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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