Heroes Among Us
Story by Kate VanSkike • Photos by Gary Matoso
At Providence Sacred Heart and Providence Holy Family hospitals, when visitors stop to read a TV screen in the main lobby, they’re not watching the news or hospital infomercials.
They’re reading about people who have received the gift of life and families whose loved ones have made that possible.
Stunning photos on LCD displays, thanks to the Providence Health Care Foundation, provide a glimpse of men, women, children and babies who have saved or improved the lives of others through organ donation.
Here, Heart Beat shares the stories of many families forever changed by organ donation. We meet a local boy who received a heart, a family of brothers fighting kidney disease and the parents of a teen whose death is still changing lives.
We also present an important request of our readers: to register as an organ and tissue donor.
Will you say yes?
Clearing the Fog
Masin Hawkins (pictured above) was an active 14-year-old who loved basketball and riding bikes. One day, he’d been playing football with friends at Post Falls Middle School, and when he went inside, he told a teacher that he felt dizzy. It’s the last thing he remembers before a school nurse performed CPR to restart his heart and an ambulance whisked him away.
Later at Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital, pediatric cardiologist Carl Garabedian, MD, diagnosed him with cardiomyopathy—a condition that causes the heart to enlarge and prevents it from pumping well. Masin also started having ventricular tachycardia—a super-fast heartbeat—and had to have an implantable cardiac defibrillator to regulate the heartbeat.
In September 2011, Masin’s mom, Cindy, became concerned with his decreasing energy and scheduled another appointment at Sacred Heart.
“We were told what we knew we may hear but didn’t want to—that Masin needed a heart transplant,” Cindy recalls.
Masin’s heart function had decreased to just 15 percent of its normal capacity. He was placed onto the national transplant list and for three long months, he remained at Sacred Heart.
“I was very concerned and afraid,” Cindy says, “but I didn’t want to ever walk into his room and have him see me upset. Our whole family helped us get through this unbearable time, and [also] hospital staff members who were always positive and helped to keep him occupied. I could at least leave the hospital and get a break from the situation, but Masin had no choice and was there every single day and night, just waiting. He is an amazing child.”
Ask Masin how he coped and he’ll say that in addition to having staff members take him outside or up on the roof to meet a MedStar helicopter pilot, he played video games … a lot. “It helped me escape,” he says.
Barely Holding On
As often happens with patients awaiting transplant, Masin experienced a false alarm, a call to prepare for surgery, only to hear that the donor’s heart was not a great fit. That was “providential” as people of Providence say when life-changing coincidences occur.
“His condition was so tenuous, it wouldn’t have been a good time to proceed with surgery,” says Beth Dullanty, RN, coordinator of congenital heart services.
A few weeks later, the Hawkins family prepared again for the lifesaving transplant Masin so desperately needed. It was a Friday morning in mid-December and Sacred Heart transplant surgeon Timothy Icenogle, MD, was ready to fly to the location where a heart for Masin could be retrieved from a donor who was on life support.
“Spokane was completely fogged in,” remembers Dullanty. “There were no flights going in or out.”
The days prior had been sunny, without a cloud in the sky. “I couldn’t understand why this was happening,” Cindy says.
Today, after receiving his new heart from a generous family, Masin is healthy and happy.
The surgery was called off again and staff encouraged Masin to go to the cafeteria for his favorite menu item, orange chicken. He was about to take their advice when he experienced his longest run of “V-tach” (the super-fast heartbeat) and was sent straight to bed. Perhaps there was fog for a reason.
At home on Saturday, Dullanty put on her “Heart for Hawkins” T-shirt and prayed for a miracle. That evening, Dr. Icenogle drove to Coeur d’Alene’s small municipal airport where the fog had lifted and planes were cleared for takeoff. At 9 p.m., Masin’s new heart was in place and working fine.
“It was an act of God,” Dullanty says of the event.
Thank You to the Family That Saved Him
Days after his transplant, Cindy learned of her acceptance into North Idaho College’s nursing program. She was fearful of committing to it with Masin at home recuperating, but he reminded her she’d wanted to be a nurse for a long time. “Go to school, Mom,” he said. “I will be OK.”
And he is. He’s been enjoying his favorite activities again—dirt bike riding, snowboarding and shooting hoops with friends. He’s also taking driver’s ed classes to prepare for his next exciting journey.
“I wish I could put into words what it’s like to have my son,” Cindy says. “I am sad when I think of the loss another family had and hope it helps them to know that they saved my son’s life.”
The Bond Between Brothers
Giving up one of his two kidneys was a gift that Kurt Holbart (left) was happy to provide to his brother Chris.
Polycystic kidney disease runs deep in the Holbart family. Brothers Chris, Kurt and Mike never knew their grandfather because he had died from the condition, and they lost their dad the same way when they were teens. They knew they had a 50-50 chance of suffering from kidney disease themselves.
The oldest of the three, Chris, was diagnosed at age 29. At first, the decrease in kidney function was gradual. But at age 44, he was constantly fatigued and had to begin dialysis—the process of removing waste from the body via machines when the kidneys can’t do the job.
During his eight weeks of dialysis, he learned he needed a kidney transplant if he wanted to return to his normal active life, which included skiing and dirt bike riding, as well as working in construction, a job he shared with both brothers.
When Kurt, just 14 months younger, learned his big brother needed a kidney, he was immediately willing to go through the lengthy process of determining whether he was a good match.
He wasn’t the only one, however. Chris had a number of friends willing to join Kurt in the effort.
“I was so blessed, humbled and grateful for everyone who volunteered to be tested,” Chris says.
Ultimately, Kurt turned out to be a perfect match, and Chris knew that his chances of a successful longterm transplant would be much greater with his brother’s match.
“I was happy to do it. There was no hesitation,” Kurt says, although he admits to a fear of needles and wasn’t thrilled that the downtime following surgery resulted in an extra inch on his waistline.
The Gift of a Lifetime
There were bigger changes for Chris. With his new kidney, his color returned, and he could eat more freely and enjoy more energy. In general, he just felt better. But those were only the physical benefits.
“My priorities definitely changed,” Chris says. “I’m fully aware of how blessed I am to have my family, wife, children and friends. To live where I do, in a country where a transplant is even possible! To enjoy life and be able to see my kids become adults.”
Chris and Kurt’s little brother, Mike, now has those same opportunities, too. After Chris’ transplant, Mike needed one also. They joke that they couldn’t in good conscience take Kurt’s other kidney, so Mike received his life-changing gift from a woman he hardly knew. “She’s a real hero, too,” they agree.
Kurt says people who find themselves with the opportunity to donate a kidney to a loved one should know, for many, it’s easy: “You don’t even notice you’re missing anything.”
Triumph From Tragedy
Drew Swank (pictured, right) was a goodhearted teenager.
He was the kind of kid who on Valentine’s Day bought red roses for every girl in his class so none of them would be left out. He was a football player who would tackle an opponent and then pat him on the back. Today, he’s still making a difference—through his life-changing gift.
Sadly, Drew suffered a fatal football injury. His mother, Patti, found herself standing over her son in an intensive care room at Sacred Heart.
“The worst day of our life became the best day of someone else’s,” Patti says.
Life For Many
Drew’s young heart is living strong inside a father named Lee who proudly remarks that his heart is younger than those of his kids. His liver went to another teenage boy in Washington state who shared the same jersey number—15. A man in Seattle received Drew’s lungs, an Alaskan received a kidney and a woman in Ohio received the other kidney, plus Drew’s pancreas. His corneas provided the gift of sight to two others.
The Swank family has met the recipient of Drew’s lungs, and even listened to the breath in those lungs with a stethoscope.
“That was a tearful moment for our entire family,” says Drew’s big sister Tara.
“God is doing a great and mighty work through our son,” says Drew’s dad.
It’s a sentiment shared by many who choose for their loved ones to become donors. Giving life to another individual helps to add purpose to a tragedy that otherwise is senseless.