For three long years, Ray Anderson spent his days in and out of the hospital, waiting for the call that would give him his life back.
The same heart failure that felled other members of his family had finally caught
up with him in 2008 when a devastating heart attack destroyed his youthful energy, his good health and his independence. To stay alive, he needed a heart transplant, but until he found a match, he had to rely on a machine called a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to keep him alive.
For three long years, he remained connected to the LVAD 24 hours a day, seven days a week, waiting, waiting, waiting for the call. In that time, he watched 98 other people receive a heart. When friends asked how frustrating that must be, Anderson replied with a smile. “They haven’t found a heart big enough for me yet,” he’d say. He became a self-proclaimed ambassador for people on the transplant waiting list and his optimism was infectious. He spent his days in the hospital roaming the hallways, striking up conversations with strangers, urging them to keep the faith that their day would soon come.
Finally, after three long years, came the crushing news from his care team that his health had deteriorated so severely, he would be unable to leave Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Texas Medical Center until he received a heart transplant. He would miss birthday parties for his 26 grandchildren. He would miss home-cooked meals. He would miss Sunday afternoons on his couch watching his Dallas Cowboys.
He called his daughter and asked her to bring his grandchildren to the hospital. His faith had started to wane, and this time, he needed his own cheering up.
They walked across the street to Hermann Park to bask in the sunlight and watch the chubby-cheeked toddlers chug by on the train. When a red Memorial Hermann Life Flight® helicopter whirred across the sky and landed atop the hospital’s helipad, Anderson pointed skyward. “You see that helicopter?” he told the girls. “One day, that helicopter is going to bring your PaPa a new heart.”
He had no way of knowing that, at that moment a mere 17 miles away, a grieving mother was bidding farewell to the son whose heart would save Anderson’s life.
Cody Harsey was only 17 years old when he registered to become an organ donor. After his cousin tragically perished at a young age, Cody wanted to do something to honor his memory. He logged in online and signed all the necessary paperwork all by himself.
When Cody died suddenly at age 23, his mother, Stacey Harsey, already knew his wishes. She was also a big proponent of organ donation, and it eased her pain ever so slightly to know that her compassionate son would be able to continue helping others, even after he was gone.
There was no way to fill the gaping hole in her own heart that his death created, but as she grieved for her youngest child in a hospital outside of Houston, it helped somehow to know that someone, somewhere in the world, would get his big heart.
There are nearly 120,000 people across the United States on the transplant waiting list, and because of a critical shortage of organs, some of these people wait for months, even years for a new organ. Others never get that lifesaving call. Every day, 22 people die waiting for a transplant, according to LifeGift, an organ procurement organization that partners with hospitals across North, Southeast and West Texas.
And yet, it only takes one person to save many lives. A single organ donor can give his or her heart, kidneys, lungs, liver, pancreas and intestines, helping a total of eight people. Tissue donations can extend those benefits even further.
Stacey Harsey would later discover that her son helped save the lives of four different people, but one man received a special gift: Not only did he get Cody’s heart, he received the lifesaving donation of Cody’s kidney, too. Harsey knew that she had to meet him.
While Anderson was enjoying the afternoon in the park with his granddaughters, his transplant coordinator at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Texas Medical Center was desperately trying to find him. The moment that Anderson had been praying for had finally come true: he was scheduled to receive not only a new heart, but a new kidney, too. It was a perfect match.
When he finally made his way back to his hospital room and heard the good news, it was almost too much to bear. “I had been scared to death before but I couldn’t show any fear in front of my family,” he said, choking back tears at the memory a year and a half later. “But when they told me they had found a match for me, I was just flooded with emotion.”
That night, Anderson underwent a nine-hour surgery to receive his new heart and new kidney. He knew nothing about the man who gave him the gift of life, and he had no words for the depth of gratitude that he felt. Within a few weeks, he was back home with his family. Within six months, he was able to move again with ease. Within a year, he had begun to feel like his old active self, before his heart failed him eight years prior.
Just days before the first anniversary of his transplant in February 2015, his transplant coordinator pulled him aside after his checkup and handed him a letter from LifeGift. Inside was a note from the mother of his donor.
He waited until he was back home and alone to open it. His eyes scanned the page, taking in the words from Stacey Harsey about a son who loved sports, played the guitar, and was expecting his first child when he died. She had a request: If Anderson was open to the idea, she would love to meet him in person. Anderson could barely contain his excitement. He raced downstairs like a child on Christmas morning to share the news with his son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons.
Anderson and Harsey agreed to meet at an Olive Garden® restaurant near Anderson’s home. They both showed up early before the restaurant opened. The minute she laid eyes on him, she wrapped him in a big hug and tears streamed down her face. The two spent more than four hours at the restaurant, eating, talking, laughing and crying, and snapping photographs.
“I told her, ‘We’re family now,’” Anderson recalled. “And I never want to lose touch.”
Since that first meeting in February, Anderson and Harsey have been nearly inseparable. They invite each other to family gatherings. They’ve gone to each other’s churches. She introduced him to her boss. He brought her to his transplant support group. They once visited Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Texas Medical Center together to meet Anderson’s nurses and doctors, and to spread a message of hope to others on the transplant waiting list.
“He’s older than me, but I sometimes think of him like my son,” Harsey said. “I’m always worried about him, worried that he’s going to overdo it. But he has courage because he has a 23-year-old heart.”
Recently, the pair returned to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center to participate in a photo shoot for an exhibit commemorating organ donation, scheduled to open in the Rick Smith Gallery in the Hermann Pavilion on Dec. 9. The exhibit, called The Ultimate Gift, features portraits of organ donors, donor families, and transplant recipients to help underscore the lifesaving importance of organ donation for people of every age, ethnicity and religion. The initiative by Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center coincides with a request from the Health Resources and Services Administration urging hospitals across the country to help raise awareness and register organ donors to bolster the number of lifesaving transplant surgeries and shorten the lengthy waiting lists.
Harsey has never asked much from Anderson but she did want one thing: To listen, just once, to her son’s heartbeat. Still, she never seemed to have any luck when she tried. At a grandchild’s birthday party, Harsey’s relatives gathered around Anderson with a stethoscope. Every single person at the party was able to hear it except Harsey. She tried again another time and still wasn’t able to discern a heartbeat. But at the photo shoot on a recent Saturday morning at Memorial Hermann-TMC, Harsey pressed her ear against the spot on Anderson’s crisp blue shirt where Cody’s heart now sits. Harsey couldn’t hold back the tears as she heard, for the first time, a heartbeat that was loud and clear and strong, just as Anderson had always promised her that it was.
“I lost my son, but having Ray in my life has brought such joy,” she said. “My whole family has noticed such a difference in me since I met him. He will never be able to replace Cody, but knowing my son saved his life, it’s just an awesome feeling.”
Not long after they first met, Harsey brought Anderson with her to visit Cody’s son who was born a few weeks after Cody died. He is still a baby, not yet 2 years old, but Anderson knows how important it is that he remain a constant presence in the boy’s life. The child will never know his real father. He will never hear Cody’s voice or feel his touch. But Anderson will be there to tell the story of how this boy’s father saved the life of a man he never knew. And when he’s ready, Anderson says he will ask the child to press his ear to his chest and hear the strong and clear beat of a big, healthy heart.
For more information about organ donation, or to register to become an organ donor, please visit www.donatelife.org. To learn more about organ transplant, visit http://www.memorialhermann.org/transplant.