Palm Beaches Marathon participant/heart transplant recipient Donald Arthur walking for two
By HAL HABIB
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Some acts of generosity defy words, and this was one. Donald Arthur spent three days trying to construct a letter of gratitude, yet all he had to show for it was a piece of paper with the words "thank you."
Since words failed him, Arthur tried actions. He was only a few minutes into the 1999 New York City Marathon — Donald Arthur? In a marathon? — when he asked the runner alongside him to come closer. Knowing Arthur's serious medical history, the other runner naturally feared something was wrong.
In fact, everything was right. Clutching one of the hands of Mack Andrews Jr., Arthur placed it over his own chest.
"I let him feel his brother's heart beat," Arthur said.
Three years earlier, Andrews' brother, Fitzgerald "Poochie" Gittens, 25, was shot and killed in what was called a case of mistaken identity. With Gittens having been declared brain-dead, his family made the difficult decision to donate his organs. In another part of New York City, Donald Arthur —- former smoker and former drinker — took the call he'd awaited for months, then felt melancholy, knowing his good fortune meant someone had died.
"I'll never forget standing there with the phone in my hand," said Arthur, 66, a retired bookkeeper. "I started crying and I couldn't stop crying, because all I could think about was the family, what they were going through. Who was it? Was it their mother? Their father? Brother? Sister?"
Arthur was about to undergo a change of heart in more ways than one. Slightly more than a year later, he embarked on a road that now stretches to Flagler Drive, where Sunday he'll be on the starting line for the seventh annual Palm Beaches Marathon.
Imagine: A man who couldn't complete a sentence — not without gasping for air — now completes 26.2 miles. He doesn't do it alone, insisting he now lives for two.
A PIECE OF HIS BROTHER LIVES ON
Feeling Gittens' heart beat during the New York City Marathon? "That was something else," Andrews said.
Fifteen months after his transplant, Arthur attempted his first marathon because, he said, maybe it was something Gittens would have wanted to do. When others heard a man was race-walking a marathon with someone else's heart, they wanted to know more. Arthur saw it as his opportunity to promote organ donations.
He reached the finish line, but he was just getting started. Instead of a quest to finish one marathon, he now had a goal of doing one marathon in all 50 states. He used to race-walk the courses but now walks them, finishing in about 7 hours. Just as a bad heart didn't stop him, neither has prostate cancer, spinal surgery and emphysema.
"What he's doing is a beautiful thing," Andrews said. "My entire family is proud of him. He got a second chance at life and he wants to give back so much and bring awareness to the organ-procurement program. He's an incredible guy."
Arthur already has 32 states checked off, including Florida. But he couldn't resist an invitation to Palm Beach from Mary Bryant, vice president of the Achilles International, an organization for athletes with disabilities.
"Why not?" he said. "It's warm down there."
During this trip, to anyone who asks, Arthur will tell them about Gittens, and how a family's selfless act benefited five people in need. He'll cite the statistic that on an average day, 19 die awaiting transplants of various organs, according to the U.S. Department of Health. He may get personal, describing how he adopted his donor's family, just as that family adopted him.
SHARING THE REWARDS
When Arthur finished his first marathon, he sent his medal to Gittens' mother, Margaret Grady, while holding onto something else.
"I had the memories," he said.
When Arthur and Mack finished that '99 New York City Marathon together in just under 7 hours, Grady was at the finish line and placed medals around both their necks.
In 2004, when Arthur got married, Grady gave him away.
"I call her Mom," Arthur said.
While it's rare for transplant recipients to do marathons, it's not unheard of. The 1998 New York City Marathon, for example, included six recipients of various organs.
Often, donors and recipients remain anonymous, but if both sides request it, organizations facilitate meetings. When Arthur and Gittens' family met, there were a lot of hugs and a lot of tears, Andrews said. Each side had pictured the other as being Caucasian. The fact they're both African-American underscores yet another need: Organs transplanted within a particular race stand a better chance of matching, and organs for African-Americans are especially in short supply.
"If anyone had asked me about being a donor when I was growing up, my attitude was, 'Whatever God gave me, I'm going to take with me,' " Arthur said. "Now, it's my life, promoting it."
Arthur's attitude about a lot of things has changed. Arthur says his former self was a smoker, drinker and partier who took advantage of others and "wasn't the person God intended me to be." Even hearing his doctor say he needed a transplant didn't change that.
"I walked out of his office, reached in my pocket, lit up a cigarette, went to the store and bought a can of beer," Arthur said. "It's all called denial."
Soon, his quality of life spiraled downhill. He sometimes slept in his tub because his bed was too uncomfortable. He couldn't work. People were afraid to be with him "because they thought I might die in their presence."
Eventually, he was given six months to live.
"I looked in the mirror in my bathroom and I said, 'What have I done with my life? What have I done to make a difference in anyone's life?' " Arthur said.
"When you get to the point when you can't have anything positive to say, you're in trouble, because that means all you've done with your life is just take up space."
So, now, he walks. And he talks, spreading his message.
They're words that came naturally — right after 'thank you.'
PALM BEACHES MARATHON FESTIVAL SCHEDULE
Thursday: Kickoff breakfast at 8 a.m. at Crowne Plaza Hotel, 1601 Belvedere Rd., West Palm Beach. Guest speaker will be Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, who will sign autographs and copies of her book. Tickets ($30) available at www.palmbeaches.org.
Friday: Runners' expo and packet pick-up noon to 7 p.m. at CityPlace, West Palm Beach; 5K run at 7 p.m.
Saturday: Runners' expo and packet pick-up 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at CityPlace, West Palm Beach; Kids K at 9 a.m.
Sunday: Bike tour begins at 6 a.m.; marathon, half-marathon and relay at 6:15 a.m.
Where: Clematis Street and Flagler Drive, downtown West Palm Beach (except for kids' runs at CityPlace).
Registration online through today : $15 for Kids K; $25 for 5K; $40 for Bill Bone Bike Tour; $80 for half-marathon; $100 for marathon; $260 for four-person marathon relay.
Weather forecast: for Sunday: Sunny; temperatures ranging from 55 to 70 degrees, cloudy, breezy.
TV: No live telecast, but WPBF-Channel 25 will do live cut-ins during Sunday morning news.
Information: www.pbmarathon.com or (561) 833-3711, ext 225.