By Beverly Majors | GateHouse News Service
|Charles Washington holds a copy of the Innovator magazine that |
features the two pioneer physicians who performed
his heart transplant in Houston in 1983.
Charles Washington, of Oakridge, Tenn., is an amazing man, and he's had an amazing life –– and the fact that he is thought to be the longest-living single heart-transplant survivor has little to do with it.
Washington survived a massive heart attack, but his father, one of his brothers and one of his sons didn't survive when they also had massive heart attacks.
Washington well remembers the day he had his heart attack: Labor Day, Sept. 2, 1982.
"I thought I had indigestion," he said during a recent interview at his home. "I went outside and ran up and down the street two or three times, thinking it would help," he said.
He smiled a bit and said: "That was dumb. I collapsed in the yard. But I began to feel better. I went inside and laid across the bed. My wife came in and saw I was in terrible shape.
"She asked me if I wanted her to call an ambulance. When a man says 'yes' to that, you know something is seriously wrong."
Being the macho man, Washington got onto the gurney himself, but on the way to the hospital, "I was in the most excruciating pain I've ever had."
He said when he arrived at the emergency room, an intern was on duty. He said the young doctor would examine him, then go look into a medical book, come back, examine him and go look again in the book.
"I was thinking, oh my God, he has no idea," Washington said.
The next morning, he was still alive. But the cardiologist told him on a scale of one to 10 –– 10 being dangerous –– his heart was at 9.5.
"That scared the dickens out of me," Washington said.
He spent the next seven days in the local hospital and, upon release, was told to "take it easy ... there's nothing we can do."
After contacting several hospitals around the country, Washington went to a hospital in Alabama for bypass surgery. He was told there that he didn't have long to live. During the surgery, the hospital experienced a power outage.
He said his family then learned that 12 trauma centers were doing experimental heart transplants. He chose The Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston. He had family there in Texas, but he had no safe way to get there unless they could find a private airplane.
In stepped Union Carbide Corp. and official Gordon Fee.
"I didn't ask how, but they got the plane," Washington said. "While the nurses were preparing me for the trip, an old lady, a nurse, said, 'I know you're going to be all right.'"
The doctors had discussed with him the possibility of his dying in flight because of the altitude. His wife, Eva, and son, Charles Jr., were there when he was put on the plane.
"I heard my son say, 'If the plane goes straight up, he'll be OK. But if it veers to the right or left, we'll lose him,'" Washington said as he choked back tears. He says when talking about the experience again, "It's almost like reliving it."
The plane went straight up, and for the next 17 days, Washington was between life and death, most times comatose. He lost 100 pounds. Then his physician, Dr. Denton A. Cooley, a heart transplant pioneer, came in with the news that a heart was available.
March 27, 1983, was the day Charlie Washington started a new life.
As he tells his story, he still sobs. He understands that the life he has was made possible because a teenager died a long time ago. That 18-year-old man's death is what 74-year-old Washington said "is one of the most civilizing things someone can get when you think about your relationship with God."
Washington received the heart of an 18-year-old Texas man, the son of an Exxon vice president who died in a motorcycle crash. That fact brings tears to his eyes and causes his voice to crack when talking about it even today. He calls it "an inner conflict."
"I constantly fight those demons. The fact that you have someone else's heart is that someone died," he said.
But he said he isn't alone in those feelings. Others who have transplants talk about it when they are all together for a reunion or other events.
"We have interesting relationships with each other and within ourselves," he said. "We have another person's living organ inside of us. You try not to think about it, but you do. You know it always.”
"I did well," Washington said. "The whole (home-town) community prayed for me and sent me letters. I had so many letters, one of the doctors asked me 'Who are you?'"
Washington stayed in Houston until August.
"I woke every morning and put on a suit and tie," he said, something he'd been doing just about every day as long as he could remember. "It made me feel better."
What's also amazing? Charlie Washington and his wife, Eva, have been married for 53 years.
"She was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen –– even after traveling to the Far East," Charlie said with a grin.
The first time Charlie saw Eva was at a high school spelling bee. They were the only two left standing, and he intentionally misspelled his word so she could win.
"I fell in love with her the first time I saw her," he said. "But I never thought I'd see her again."
Charlie said, although they lived in the same county, they went to different high schools. Charlie joined the Air Force and when he returned home to Attapulgus, Ga., Eva was teaching. His mother tried to put the two together several times, but at that time, Charlie wasn't interested in a serious relationship, and he was only home on a 30-day leave.
But he gave in and escorted Eva to a teachers' ball. That's when he really noticed her beauty. Even though, he said, he was seeing two other women and seeing them all at different times on the same day.
"I was quite a handsome dude at that time," Charlie said. "I had suits made in Formosa with matching vests. I changed clothes two or three times a day."
But he married Eva. The couple moved to Oak Ridge, Tenn. in 1972. There, the couple raised three children: Charles Jr., Samuel and Charlotte. Samuel died a few years ago of a massive heart attack while helping move a refrigerator.
"I'm very conscious of life and death. If there was ever any apprehension about death, they're suddenly gone. It's much more about living," Charlie said.
Eva now also has medical problems and is undergoing dialysis. Charlie remains fairly healthy despite taking a "tremendous amount” of anti-rejection medicines.
But that's not all. The longest surviving heart transplant patient in the world has also had a kidney transplant. That was 16 years ago, and last year, doctors put a stent in his heart.
"So far, my prognosis is good," he said.