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The Father’s Day card came from the family who gave my dad a new heart

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Archie Mitchell, 69, received a heart transplant on June 22, 2012. “The man’s heart I have beating in my body belongs to Frank Edwards. He was from Chicago, Ill. His heart fit in my body like it was meant to be there.”
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

Five years ago, I tried to talk to my dad about death. I wanted to hear his regrets. I wanted to laugh at silly memories, like the time his older brothers put their mom’s best saucepan on his head and sent him sprinting into a hailstorm. I wanted to know if he was afraid.

He ignored me and kept talking about the Cubs game on TV.

It was Father’s Day in June 2012. He was lying in bed on the Cardiovascular Critical Care Unit at IU Health Methodist Hospital, in end-stage heart failure. This wasn’t the only time I worried my dad could die; he had the first of two massive heart attacks at age 40, the year I went to college. But this time was different. The man who used to referee high school basketball, and outplay those same kids at the local park, could barely breathe after walking a few feet. At 64, he would die without a heart transplant.

Things grew more urgent in the hospital the night his defibrillator started firing, shocking his heart into rhythm. He wailed like someone punched him in the chest. My mom calmly watched the monitor and counted — 4, 3, 2, 1 — so he knew when to expect the jolt. My sister and I held hands at his bedside and tried not to cry.

On June 20, my dad, Archie Mitchell, was listed as a status 1A patient in the United Network of Organ Sharing database, where the sickest and most urgent cases go. Two days later, a nurse came into his room. “Don’t plan on eating anything for dinner tonight,” she said. “We might have a new heart for you.”

In the electrified upheaval of that day, all we knew was the heart belonged to a man in his 40s who had died in an accident. It wasn’t until two months ago, when I talked with the donor’s wife, I realized at the exact time our family needed a miracle, so did theirs. 

Inspiring read: How do you live when you know you are dying?

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‘His soul was gone’

It was June 19. Temperatures had soared into the 90s in Chicago, so Frank Edwards decided to take his two youngest daughters, 10 and 13, swimming in their apartment complex pool. The last thing they remember was their dad taking his keys, ID and phone out of his pockets and jumping into the deep end, laughing.

But for some reason, he didn’t come back up.

Why is my daddy still at the bottom? Shanina, the 10-year-old, wondered nervously. Frank, stop scaring the kids, a family friend warned, then realized it wasn’t a joke. The friend dove in, but couldn’t lift Frank’s muscular body out of the water. By the time an ambulance arrived, he had been pulled to the surface but wasn’t conscious. 

When Tina Edwards arrived at the hospital, her husband of nearly 22 years was in a coma. 

Frank Edwards, a Chicago father of six, died in 2012 in a drowning accident. His heart was donated to Archie Mitchell. (Photo: Photo provided.)

“I have never in my life seen that many machines hooked up to a person,” she said. “I stayed strong. I was just rubbing Frank’s hand and talking to him and saying, ‘I’m gonna get you for this when you wake up, because you know better.’ He was still warm.”

That night and the next day, doctors tried to save Frank’s life. On June 20, they told the family he was in a state of brain death and would not recover. Tina had to decide whether Frank, 46, should be taken off life support. His mother, she said, fought fiercely against it, holding out hope that her youngest child would wake up.

Again, Tina reached for Frank’s hand.

“I knew that when I touched my husband, I get that feeling, and there was nothing there,” she said. “I wasn’t crying or anything — I just knew. His soul was gone. I said, ‘God, your will is done.'” 

Read more: Decide. Donate. Don’t leave your family guessing.

‘Either way, I’ll be OK’

Two days later, on June 22, my dad was wheeled into the second-floor Open Heart Surgery room at IU Health Methodist. He handed my mom his gold wedding band, and she gave it to my sister for safekeeping.

The last thing he said to us was, “Well, I’ll see you back here, or I’ll see you in heaven. Either way, I’ll be OK.” 

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Archie Mitchell with his two youngest grandchildren, Caimen Mitchell and Violet Kingsbury, in July 2012 at IU Health Methodist Hospital. (Photo: Amanda Kingsbury/IndyStar)

While Dr. Thomas Wozniak, a cardiothoracic surgeon, began preparing my dad for surgery, his surgical partner, I-Wen Wang, was en route to Chicago on the Indiana Donor Network’s eight-seat jet. He was joined by a scrub nurse and one of the network’s organ recovery coordinators. The team’s job: Make sure Frank’s heart was suitable, remove it from his body, pack it in a cooler and transport it safely on the 40-minute flight back to Indianapolis.

With a heart transplant, the planning must be especially precise. Surgeons have four to six hours between the time the heart is removed from a donor’s body to the time it’s placed in a recipient’s body. (Compare that to a kidney, which can be preserved for 24 to 36 hours.) 

“In a perfect world, you’d like Dr. Wang to walk in the operating room with the heart in the ice bucket right at the time you’ve just taken the recipient’s heart out, so you can minimize the time the heart is out of the human body,” Dr. Wozniak said. 

In “How to Hold a Heart,” a 2016 New York Times magazine article, a California cardiologist described how to delicately remove a heart from a patient’s body. “Always cradle it in two hands. Squeeze the pinkie sides of your palms together, overlapping your fingers as if you are scooping up water to drink.”

Because my dad’s heart was so diseased and scarred from previous surgeries, there was no elegance to its ending. Dr. Wozniak carved it out, in pieces, and handed them to a scrub nurse, who put them in a stainless steel bowl. His fragmented heart went to pathology. 

In the hole left in my dad’s chest, about the size of a small cantaloupe, Frank’s heart was sewn in carefully. Then, the transplant team waited for it to beat. About 45 minutes to an hour later, my dad was taken off the heart-lung machine that had kept his blood and oxygen going during the nearly eight-hour surgery. 

“The most angst-provoking part of the operation,” Dr. Wozniak said, “is knowing whether that heart is going to work. Like anything else in life, sometimes things happen.” 

‘A part of my husband is still living’

For some reason, as the five-year anniversary of the heart transplant approached, I struggled to call the donor’s wife. I held on to Tina’s number for two weeks. My dad had spoken to her once and found her easy to talk to, and in the few letters that they had exchanged, she was gracious and kind, and resolute in her faith. 

But we hadn’t heard from her in more than a year. Still, when I introduced myself as Archie Mitchell’s daughter, I heard a soft, reassuring exclamation. “I’ve been thinking about your mom and dad so much,” she said. “I miss them. I’ve been praying for them.” 

I said I was writing an article about my dad but didn’t think it was a story worth telling without understanding their journey. So she told me how she and Frank met at Marshall Metropolitan High School on Chicago’s west side, and she was surprised he liked her because she was such a tomboy. They had six kids. Frank, who loved to go fishing, had once shown up in the delivery room smelling like fish.

“My husband had a good heart and cared about everybody,” she said. “He would spend his last dime helping somebody. He would help them with counseling when they got on drugs, and he hired a lot of prisoners when they came out.”

That’s why she didn’t hesitate to donate his organs when two women from the Gift of Hope in Chicago approached her shortly after his death. They were sorry, they said, and their hearts went out to the family. Had she and Frank ever talked about organ donation? He was not a registered donor. While the couple had once joked about the color of the suit Frank would want to be buried in — he insisted no gray or brown — they had never talked about organ donation.

“Just imagine, a part of my husband is still living,” she said.

Before we hung up, I wanted Tina to understand how grateful our family is, how hard we are working to feel worthy of this second chance. I started blathering: My mom teaches Sunday school and wears a mustard-seed necklace to show her faith, and my dad still hears from kids whose lives he changed when he taught fifth grade, and my sister volunteers for Donate Life Arizona …

We didn’t need to thank her, Tina said. She just wanted us to cherish every day, find reasons to stop and smile, pray for each other, and show love to our family and friends. “Life is a gift,” she said simply. “It’s a blessing to have it.”

‘You won’t get this moment back’

The tenderness of the moment has never been easy for me, someone who sees life more as one big “to-do” list than “to-be” list. Recently I got annoyed with my cat, Lola, who jumped on my lap while I was reading yet another bourgeois-Buddhist book, “Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life.” The irony wasn’t lost: A sentient being, demanding nothing more than a scratch on her little black ears, and, dammit, can’t you see I’m busy reading about living in the moment?

Back in the summer of 2012, I was grateful for the miracle of my dad’s new heart. But there was work to be done. He spent 40 days in the hospital after surgery, and we were consumed with his recovery. 

Three months after my dad went home, my husband and I divorced after 18 years of marriage. And then my grandmother died. And there was my demanding job. And single motherhood. And later, a long-distance relationship that hadn’t felt right for more than a year, but I couldn’t let it go because I was afraid to be alone.

And then I ran out of excuses. A few days after talking with Tina, I realized I had spent most of the past five years obsessing about the next five. Sure, I could tick off a list of things I was grateful for: daughter, family, friends, health, house, career. But it had been a long time since I felt actual, in-the-moment joy, or hadn’t squandered my chance to feel it.

Two weeks ago, I was driving my 10-year-old daughter, Violet, from school, and she was excited about the Instagram account she and a friend created to show off their homemade slime creations. Meanwhile, I was playing the movie reel of that failed long-distance relationship in my head. 

Then it hit me: You will not get this moment back. It’s your daughter’s second-to-last day of fifth grade, and where have you been during the past year? Where are you right now? I felt ashamed. But for the first time in a while, I was jolted awake. 

‘How lucky I am to be alive’

A heart transplant patient, on average, can live another 10½ years. With Frank’s heart beating in his chest, my dad estimates he’s been blessed so far with about 1,825 extra days of life. He’s spent most of those mornings eating heart-healthy Cheerios.

He experienced five more Halloweens, celebrating my birthday on Oct. 31 and watching his granddaughter go trick-or-treating.

He took five more trips to Phoenix to see his youngest daughter.

He watched two of his granddaughters get their high school diplomas. 

He cheered as the Cubs won the 2016 World Series.

He proved to my brother that he can still beat him in golf.

He met Bob Knight. 

He celebrated anniversaries 44-48 with my mom, which meant five more years of playing pranks on her.

These days, though, he finds the most contentment in the everyday: “Watching my grandchildren run around. Playing squeaky-toy with my dog,” he said. “Just being in nature. A lot of times, I just look around and say, ‘How lucky I am to be alive.'” 

Five years ago, when my dad ignored my questions about death, I thought he was wimping out on the subject of his own mortality. All he was trying to tell me was, “We’re here. In the now. Can the two of us just watch the Cubs?”

‘A father to all of us’

The five-year anniversary of my dad’s new heart coincides with Father’s Day weekend. We’ll celebrate at my parents’ house in Lowell, Ind., with a barbecue. We’ll try to keep the dog from licking the icing off the heart-shaped cake. We’ll toast my great-aunt Ruby, the self-proclaimed psychic who, to her credit, predicted the exact day my dad would get his new heart. 

And we’ll laugh at my dad’s postoperative hallucinations, which offered levity during a critical time. His visitors to the ICU didn’t know what to expect. Go get some buckets of water, he urgently begged my aunt and uncle, and help me put out all these fires in my room!  A cousin and his wife were left to wonder why he shrank from them in terror and said nothing for 30 minutes. Later, he told us, it’s because their faces were covered in bugs.

Then we’ll head to the park for our annual life-affirming ritual: a round of free throws. In our family, everything is always a competition, especially if it involves a basketball. No one gets to leave without making a shot from the free-throw line. The first year, we rebounded 37 of my dad’s missed shots. The past two years, he’s sunk them on the first try.

One year, we hope Tina Edwards and her children will join us. It’s something Tina said she is thinking about, though she used to be scared about the idea of meeting my dad.

“I knew if I hugged him, I would never let him ago. It would be just like hugging Frank. Your mom would be saying, ‘Is she ever going to let him go? Is she ever going to stop crying?’ And Lord, it takes a lot for me to cry.” 

My dad just wants to talk to her and the kids about Frank, and learn all the little things about him. What was his favorite food? What kind of music did he like? Was he a Cubs fan?

“People always ask me if it’s odd to have another man’s heart beating in my chest,” my dad said. “But it’s always felt right. It feels like a part of me now.” 

Last Tuesday, when my dad walked to the mailbox, he pulled out an unexpected Father’s Day card with a Chicago postmark. It was signed by Kenneth, Gina, Emilio, Christina, Shanina and Andrew. 

Inside, were these words: Everyone needs to know, Mr. Mitchell, that you are a father to all of us — the students you taught in school, everyone you teach in church, also us, the Edwards children. We will be thinking about you and our dad on June 18. 

Amanda Kingsbury is an editor and writer at IndyStar. Reach out to her at amanda.kingsbury@indystar.com or at facebook.com/amanda.kingsbury.73.

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