Michael Radicchi never met Chris Schaker.
But he knows Schaker had a big heart — a heart as big as his beloved Lake McQueeney and as strong as a Longhorn steer’s.
And that’s because it’s been beating away in Radicchi’s chest for more than two years — keeping the Florida man alive.
This week, Radicchi and his wife Laura visited the family of Fred and Gloria Schaker to learn about their benefactor and to thank the Schakers for making the decision at Chris Schaker’s deathbed to donate his organs.
Friday, they visited Chris Schaker’s Geronimo grave so Radicchi, a big, emotional bear of a man, could thank him in person.
Chris Schaker grew up on Lake McQueeney, where his parents, Fred and Gloria, have had a home since 1949.
“He was born in San Antonio, but he grew up on the lake,” Fred said. “He was like a fish. He loved the water. He was always at the ski lodge, pulling someone.”
Chris became an accomplished skier who performed for several years as part of SeaWorld’s entertainment troupe. He died on March 13, 2008 as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in his McQueeney home — at a still-youthful 44.
“Chris loved life and lived it to the fullest,” Fred said.
When he was discovered, Chris was taken to Guadalupe Regional Medical Center and then on to Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, where the family got the horrible news: he’d suffered a hemorrhage that was not survivable.
“He was brain-dead,” Fred said.
The entire family was standing around the bed digesting that information when hospital officials told them Chris Schaker had a unique opportunity to help others.
“They told us 2 percent of people die in a condition where they can become organ donors,” recalled Chris’s brother, Tony.
It wasn’t an easy decision. The doctors and nurses at Brackenridge weren’t pushy, the Schakers say. They were empathetic, understanding and considerate.
“They were wonderful,” Gloria said. “They had to talk to us pretty good. They told us all the different things they could donate and the good it could do.”
A nurse talked to the Schakers for a long time — some three hours.
“They said, ‘You have a very rare opportunity to donate Chris’s organs,” sister, Terry DeFrain recalled. “We were in shock.”
Fred remembered he was probably the biggest holdout.
“You’re there at the hospital, and they tell you your son’s not going to survive. I wasn’t in favor of it. I asked the doctor how severe it was. He said it was a very large hemorrhage. He showed us the X-rays, and he had a large blood clot on the top of his head. I thought, well, he’s on life-support, maybe we could leave him up in the hospital and he could come out of it. We could wait and see what happens.”
Gloria said the family was told they had a narrow window in which to make the decision because even on life support, the organs begin to degrade and die. “How could you say no?” she asked.
Fred talked to the doctors some more. “I asked, ‘does anybody survive this?’ They said no. They did a lot of explaining to us,” Fred said. “They said, it’s your choice. We’re only telling you what we can do. But the whole family has to agree.”
Tony said his brother was the kind of person who would do anything for anybody — literally the kind to give someone the shirt off his back if they needed it. “We decided it was something Chris would do, so we made the arrangements,” Tony said.
Life has been good to Michael Radicchi, a Binghampton, N.Y. native who now lives in Valrico, Fla. and works in the banking industry. But it hasn’t been without its challenges.
“I’m almost fully recycled, but I have a few organs of my own,” Radicchi joked.
Radicchi’s family suffers with inherited polycystic kidney disease, and several family members have had kidney transplants, including him. His sister has had a kidney and a liver transplant. Radicchi was lucky. In 1983, he got a kidney provided by his older brother — and both men have done well ever since. “I was fortunate because I had a living, related donor,” Radicchi said.
In 2003, Radicchi had a major heart attack. As are many heart attacks, it was a life-changing event for Radicchi. Surgeons cleared three blocked arteries with stents, and he lost weight, taking up walking and other exercise. n 2006, he noticed he was beginning to have trouble breathing when he walked — and that it seemed to be getting worse. A visit to the cardiologist confirmed the worst. “He said I had congestive heart failure and the only thing that could cure it would be a heart transplant,” Radicchi said. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall and with a relatively rare B-positive blood type, the options were not good. Radicchi couldn’t use just any heart. He needed a large one from a large man — with B-positive blood.
Transplant guidelines require that the donor be no more than four inches different in stature than the recipient — making the match even more difficult to achieve. During a physical exam, Radicchi got a break — as his body aged, it became an inch shorter, which as it turned out would make him a match — barely — for Chris Schaker.
Radicchi’s condition worsened, and in late February, 2008, his doctors put him in Tampa General Hospital to await a donor heart — or die while he waited. Again a bit of good news: he went to the top of the transplant list. “My heart was pretty bad,” Radicchi said. Friday afternoon, March 14, Radicchi got the word while his entire family happened to be visiting that a prospective heart — they don’t tell recipients whose — had become available at a hospital in Austin, Texas. Even the knowledge that he might be saved was bittersweet, tempered by knowing a 44-year-old Texas man had been struck down in the prime of his life, and that he might benefit from that. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Radicchi said. “They tell you the donor is a man, 44 years old, and that he’s dead. They don’t tell you his name or how the person passed away.”
Sitting a few feet away at the other side of the couch, Gloria Schaker nodded her head in understanding. “You went through a lot of stuff,” Gloria said. “He’s a big man — his shoes are size 16 — and he needed a big heart.” The transplant cardiologist, Dr. Cedric Sheffield, flew to Austin in a chartered jet. As he did, the rest of the transplant team made preparations in Tampa. They moved Radicchi into pre-op and began getting him ready for surgery.
“They said, ‘We’re preparing you for surgery, but if there’s anything wrong with this heart, we’ll cancel the procedure,” Radicchi said. “I was scared to death. I told the nurse, ‘I don’t want to know a thing. Put me out and do what you have to do.’” At 1 a.m., he went into surgery. At 4 a.m., the surgeon came out of the operating suite and told Laura Radicchi and her family, ‘Michael’s got a big, strong, healthy heart.’”
“Smooth” recovery It took another four hours to sew Radicchi back up and send him on to recovery. From there, he went into the first of two levels of intensive care. Radicchi said Tampa General Hospital has transplant operations down to an exact science. “They remove your heart, but they leave the back wall of your heart in place so they have something to sew the new heart onto,” Radicchi said. Next to survival, his biggest fear was what the pain of recovery would be like. Radicchi said he didn’t want to trivialize the operation, but the resulting pain wasn’t as bad as he’d expected. That night, Radicchi made his first post-operative request of his wife about as soon as he could talk.
He wanted a Smoothie — a blended, chilled fruit drink sold in convenience stores.
The family was incredulous. Not Laura Radicchi. She rushed to the store, got the Smoothie — the clerk didn’t even charge her after learning why — and smuggled it back into the hospital. “I said, my husband’s just had a heart transplant and he wants a Smoothie,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t care if he wants a pizza.’” The next day, Sheffield walked by his patient’s bed and gave him a big smile and a thumbs-up.
“‘It’s not supposed to go this well,’” the Radicchis recall the doctor saying. “People who don’t know are scared to death when they hear the word, ‘transplant,’” Radicchi said. “But the medical profession has come so far.” Two days later, the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance, a non-profit organ procurement organization, called Terry DeFrain.
“They said, ‘We just wanted to tell you they usually donate parts of the heart. But your brother’s was so good, they were able to give the whole heart to a recipient in Florida.’ That was the first indication we had of what had happened.” The group told the Schakers nothing about Radicchi except that he was a 57-year-old man who lived in the Tampa area.
The kidneys, the Schakers were told, went to two Texans. Parts of Chris Schaker's eyes went to restore sight for five people.
Two months into his recovery, Radicchi sent the Schakers a letter through LifeLink Foundation. The rules of such correspondence are strict to protect the privacy of both sides. Radicchi still didn’t know who his donor family was, and the Schakers didn’t know Radicchi, so the letter began, “Dear Donor Family.”
“My name is Michael, and if not for the grace of God and your family’s gracious gift of life, I may not be here today to write to you. There are no words to effectively say thank you, but I do and they do not seem adequate to me. I am a 57-year-old man with a new lease on life. I now call March 15th my re-birthday and plan to celebrate it every year with a prayer to God for granting me this new heart and one for your family to make sure He watches over you always.”
Radicchi went on to tell the Schakers a little bit about himself and express his desire to know about Chris Schaker, as well. “I would never pry and ask for any personal information, but I would like to know about his interests, some of his favorite things and generally what kind of person he was,” Radicchi wrote.
He ended his letter with a promise and a prayer for Chris Schaker.
“I continually have to stop and realize that I have another person’s heart inside me. I thank God and you every day for letting me continue on. I promise I will treasure this gift of life to the end and will take excellent care of it. May your son be at peace with God for an eternity.” The letter took about 40 minutes to write. “I cried all the way through it,” Radicchi said.
At the same time, TOSA was telling the Schakers they could write Radicchi a letter, but the family couldn’t decide what to do. Then, they received Radicchi’s letter. “That’s how it started,” Terry recalled. It took about three months for their reply to get to Radicchi, and when it did, TOSA asked him if he’d be willing to give his contact information to the Schakers.
“I said, ‘Absolutely!’” Radicchi recalled.
And so began a correspondence that led this past week to a sort of family reunion in McQueeney. Laura Radicchi and Terry DeFrain regularly talk on the phone like old friends.
Fred Schaker never expected to hear from any of the recipients of his son’s organs, but said he isn’t surprised to hear from Radicchi. “I know if it was me, I’d go find them,” Fred said. “I’d want to talk to them.’”
That’s how it was for Radicchi. “I made it one of my goals to meet them, and I’m so glad I have,” he said. Radicchi was also very impressed with what he learned of Chris Schaker. “I think he’s amazing, and from everything I’ve heard, Chris lived life to the fullest,” Radicchi said. “He had a great spirit, a true love for life and a huge love for his family and for people in general.” Radicchi also learned that Chris Schaker was a bit of a prankster, something he and his donor have in common. Radicchi said he’s heard sometimes transplant recipients take on some of the traits of a donor. He doesn’t know whether that’s happened to him or not.
Laura Radicchi said she hopes that’s true — and she added that she’d like to see signs of it soon because one of the things Chris Schaker loved is cooking. “I’m still waiting for this love of cooking to surface,” she said, smiling at her husband. It might just be, Radicchi said. “I make an amazing grilled cheese sandwich,” he said.
Friday night, Tony Schaker did the cooking while the Radicchis and the Schakers enjoyed filling one another in. “We’ve only just met, and Michael’s a very nice, very very good man,” Gloria said. “And with Michael here, with his heart, he’s not gone.”
“No, he’s not,” Radicchi said. “He’s alive and well and living in Florida. I feel like I’ve been adopted.”