Two Days of Humility

Before becoming a member of the United States Senate, my job was transplanting hearts.  A typical night:  I was in bed, and the telephone rang.  A faceless voice on the other end of the line said, "Dr. Frist, we've got a heart for you.  Blood type A.  Donor 140 pounds.  Sounds like a match for a John Majors."

I received calls like this from the National Organ Donation Registry once or twice a week – usually late at night.

God had answered my first prayer.  And the prayers of John Majors.

John was a 55-year-old friend and patient who was dying from severe, rapidly progressive heart disease.  In bed and wasting away, a few weeks from certain death, he had waited months for a new heart.  He began each day with a prayer that someone, somewhere, would make the gift of a heart so that he could live.  With that late-night call, John's prayers were answered.  God had blessed him with a second chance at a full life – if my transplant team did a perfect job.

Adrenaline now pumping, I got out of bed, kissed my devoted and understanding wife, Karyn, goodnight, checked on our three sleeping sons, and rushed to the hospital to give John and his wife the good news myself – news I knew they feared they would never hear.  Unfortunately, most of my 26 patients who were waiting for a heart would die before a donor heart would become available.

I hurried from home to the hospital to the airport, and an hour later I was on a chartered jet flying through the black night to Chattanooga to remove the healthy heart of a 23-year-old woman who had tragically died hours earlier in a car accident.  From the plane, my team jumped into a waiting ambulance, and with lights and sirens blaring, we rushed through the night to a hospital I had never seen to operate alongside surgeons I had never met on a patient I would never have the opportunity to thank.

We scrubbed, opened the chest, and exposed the heart.  Every eye in the room focused on that heart – powerful and inspiring as it beat in perfect rhythm, expanding and contracting, pumping blood through thousands of miles of capillaries in the human body.  It is a living, vigorous, miracle of God that every second of our lives sustains us with grace and glory.

I cross-clamped the aorta, injected cold cardioplegia into the blood vessels feeding the heart, and instantly the dynamic, magnificently pulsating heart stopped.  Suddenly, it was completely motionless – still and quiet.  Asleep.  That dependable source of energy for physical life, which had not missed a single beat in more than 75 million perfectly timed contractions, was not asleep.

And that's when my own heart began to pound.  I began to operate as fast as I could, because starting at that moment we had only four hours to remove the heart, fly back to Nashville, and get it started again in John's body.

A mistake, a delay – anything that took more than four hours, just 240 minutes – meant that this heart would never restart, and John would not see his family in this world again.

Within 10 minutes the heart was removed.  I placed it in an Igloo ice chest and dashed to the waiting ambulance.  We raced through the night once again, with lights dancing and sirens wailing, to the plane that waited with its engines already expectantly roaring.  We roared into Nashville for another bumpy ambulance ride to the hospital, where John was now asleep in the operating room.  Carefully, I removed John's old, worn-out, fatally diseased heart, and respectfully lowered the young woman's healthy heart into the empty chest cavity.

I sewed the blood vessels together that allowed John's blood to nourish and refill the newly positioned heart.

And then the precious moment of truth arrived – the wait for the heart to come alive again.  The room became hushed.  Absolute silence.  No one moved.  No one spoke.  This is a precious moment that always, in every case, strikes fear deep in my soul.  Will the new heart, suspended now for almost four hours in a lifeless state, come back to life?  What if we'd taken too long?  What if someone had made a mistake in the blood type?  What if I had not done a perfect job in sewing in the new organ?  I questioned and doubted everything we did along the way.