Sixth in an occasional series.
From tragedy to destiny in just over 90 days.
That's what family, friends and fans of LDS musician Paul Cardall were struck by Thursday morning, with word that his long-awaited heart transplant was successfully performed at Primary Children's Medical Center.
At 36, Cardall was the oldest Utah patient with congenital heart disease to have survived to his age without a transplant. Cardiologist Angela Yetman said she's "never seen anything like" Cardall's determination to keep living and the optimism he has.
"He's come through this as if he hasn't had cardiac surgery. He's sitting up in bed talking and making jokes," she said Thursday. "I think he's benefitting from everybody's prayers and his own faith. He's got me convinced. I've known him for the last year, and I certainly can't find a better explanation."
It's a story a novelist might conjure up, but for Cardall and his family, it's another adventure in a life so surprising to medical personnel that the heart surgeon who thought Cardall would likely die as an infant made his way to the hospital for congratulations.
The donor heart was implanted by surgeons little more than three months after Cardall's brother, Brian Cardall, died June 9 next to a highway in southern Utah. Police had Tasered him when he was found running naked there during an episode of mental illness.
Though the Cardalls have long been grateful for the hope offered through organ donation, Brian Cardall's death put the entire family squarely into the shoes of donor families who make the decision to give organs and tissue from deceased loved ones to others. Today, they empathize in a visceral, palpable way.
Though Brian Cardall's manner of death didn't allow for organ donation, he was able to donate other tissue and bone, his father said. Noting the entire family has long prayed for those who are now experiencing their own grief so Paul Cardall could have a chance to live, his father Duane Cardall had a message Thursday for the donor's family, whom they will never meet. Confidentiality agreements prohibit the release of any information on the donor.
"We hope they experience the same degree of comfort that we experienced when Brian was able to become a donor," he told the Deseret News shortly after seeing his son in the recovery room, listening to his iPod.
It's the yin and yang of going from being a donor family to being recipients of the same kindness that prompted at least one friend who learned of the transplant to quip simply: "Miracles happen."
Paul Cardall's wife, Lynnette Cardall, said when her husband was first listed for a transplant in August 2008, "we felt a sense of guilt that someone's sorrow was going to be our joy. But I know many who have gone through this experience that were very grateful they could donate. It's one wonderful, final thing they could do for their loved one."
She said watching her husband being wheeled out of his room and into surgery was a different experience from the "false alarm" they had last Christmas Eve, when he was prepped and wheeled in for surgery, only to be told the heart wouldn't be available.
"At the time, I wondered if I had said everything I wanted to say, and does he realize how grateful I am for him and what if I can't express that later," she said.
"There was a sense of peace this time. We all felt it was going to go fine, and I didn't have those worries. I don't know if it's because we had more time to share those feelings," she said. "He had lots of odds against him, and with how incredibly risky the surgery was, his will to live and do more with his life was stronger and overpowered those odds."
Cardall's surgeons told the Deseret News several months ago that his will to live was a big factor in their hope for his future.
Even so, he had grown weaker in recent weeks, which moved him up on the transplant priority list. He has been hospitalized for the past month, and his heart — diseased at birth — had grown well beyond its normal size.
While medical personnel see that as a sign of severe illness, some would argue that the physical size of his sick heart grew as his compassion for others with congenital heart disease has become a source of hope for those who read his blog online at mytricuspidatresia.blogspot.com.
He routinely writes of children who suffer much as he did and the impact they have on those who love them. His latest song, "Gracie's Theme," was written for fellow transplant patient Gracie Gledhill, a child who died last spring shortly after receiving a new heart as he waited for a new one of his own.
Dr. George Veasy, who became "Uncle George" to Cardall during his childhood through ongoing treatment and several surgeries, showed up at Primary Children's Thursday morning to help the family celebrate.
Now in his 80s, the renowned pediatric cardiologist listened as Duane Cardall recounted their first encounter 36 years ago. Paul Cardall was a newborn in trouble, and Duane Cardall was standing outside Veasy's office door — unbeknown to him — while Veasy was engaged in a phone consultation with another surgeon.
After hearing Veasy say, "I'm afraid this kid isn't going to make it," Duane Cardall said he couldn't have imagined Thursday's reunion following the transplant. "I told him, 'Here we are 36 years later, and he's made it again!' "
In the recovery room on Thursday, "they were trying to keep him sedated, but he was very aware of what is going on," his father said. With a large breathing tube in his mouth, he couldn't speak, but he was given a whiteboard to write messages to his wife and parents.
The first one: "Tell me about the surgery." After his wife explained how smoothly things went, he pushed: "Be specific," he wrote, asking about possible complications, which she was able to assure him "weren't an issue."
He also wrote a message specifically to those who have followed his story in the Deseret News, as well as on his blog or in person: "I am alive because of the medical team, the support of this community and my Savior, who healed me."
39 Utahns await hearts
39 Utahns are currently on the waiting list for a heart transplant, according to Dixie Madsen of Intermountain Donor Services.
For more information on becoming an organ donor, call the Utah Donor Registry at 866-YES-UTAH or see the Web site at www.yesutah.org. The United Network for Organ Sharing has detailed nationwide information at www.UNOS.org.