When Lemuel Bradshaw first got bronchitis in April 1998, the then-28-year-old never could have imagined that heart transplants would become part of his life. After two weeks of antibiotics, he thought he was good to go.
Within months, the viral bronchitis damaged his heart. On Oct. 23, 1999, after just turning 30, he had his first heart transplant. He and his wife, Odessa, had been married about a year, and he had married into a family with three teenage daughters.
“I was really overwhelmed with just the prospect of getting the one,” Bradshaw says of his heart transplant. In his mind, heart transplants were like the artificial hearts he had heard about in the 1980s. The patients never really lived.
Plus, as Bradshaw explains it, “I had always been the biggest, strongest kid in the class. It was a complete shock.”
His heart had deteriorated so quickly that he was on the transplant list for only three weeks before he rose to the top of the list and got that first heart transplant. He learned later that doctors believed he had only about another 48 hours to live without it.
Bradshaw’s first transplant lasted 20 years. What many people don’t understand is that a heart transplant isn’t a forever solution.
The median number of years a transplanted heart continues to work is about 10, says Dr. Mary Cishek, who has been Bradshaw’s cardiologist.
“That’s pretty good if you’re a 65-year-old man,” she says. “If you’re young like Lemuel, that’s not as great.”
Each time someone needs a new heart, it’s more difficult to find a match. As Cishek explains, anything that is a foreign protein, such as a transplanted organ, causes the body to create antibodies. Plus a patient has their own antibodies. Finding a new donor means finding an organ that fits with both sets of antibodies.
Bradshaw kept his body fit. He participated in transplant Olympics in 2014 by doing the 500-meter swim, “which is no joke,” he says.
Even as he began experiencing complications with his transplanted heart, “he kept the rest of his body in such good shape, he was able to compensate for severe disease,” Cishek says. Other patients would have noticed a gradual decline, she says.
That’s not what happened to Bradshaw. He noticed a change suddenly. In 2016, he went for his usual walk, about a 2-mile circuit. About a half a block from home, he was gasping for air and fatigued. “Those were warning bells,” he says.
Cishek had him do a stress test. The doctor he had known since his first transplant couldn’t hide anything. “I could see the despair in her face,” he says. It was like a gut punch, he says.
His small arteries were being affected, which means, Cishek says, there’s no treatment other than a new heart transplant.
In the next four years, Bradshaw would get close to getting the call for a new heart at times, but it would go to someone else or it wasn’t the right one for him.
Then, after a Valentine’s Day dinner this year, he and Odessa went to bed. At 1 a.m. he got the call that a heart had been found. He had turned off his phone, but luckily the team at Seton Medical Center had his wife’s number and she answered.
It wasn’t quite the same as that first heart transplant, when he left the hospital seven days later. This one was more complicated. Part of his heart had adhered to his lung and had to be cut away. He stayed in the hospital for two weeks this time and has spent this year building back his strength. He does morning cardio on a stationary bike that was prescribed to him 20 years ago, but his heart rate isn’t quite where it was before.
“I’m impatient,” he says. “You almost expect as soon as you put a new engine in the car, you can rev that car as hard. As you can imagine, I get frustrated. I have to re-examine my expectations.”
One thing that hasn’t changed with his new heart is the connection that remains with the family of his first donor. Bradshaw wrote to Betty Montano about a year after he received her husband Joe’s heart. Betty and Joe had been high school sweethearts in San Angelo and got married just as he was about to go to the Vietnam War as a paratrooper.
After three years of him serving in Vietnam, they came back to Texas, and he got his degree in accounting from the University of Texas at San Antonio. They later settled in Houston, where he worked for the IRS. They raised two girls. Joe was always a giving person, Montano says. He took care of his family members, encouraged his daughters to make meals for the homeless and taught English as a second language classes.
In October 1999, he was on Texas 71 outside of Austin heading to San Angelo for his niece’s wedding when his car hit a horse. He was taken by helicopter to Brackenridge Hospital in Austin.
“I didn’t have to make decisions about the gift of life,” Betty Montano says today. “He had already told us what he wanted to be done. He didn’t want to be on life support. He was an organ donor. He had made that pretty clear to the whole family.”
He was kept on a ventilator long enough for the whole family to say goodbye before his heart went into Bradshaw’s body. His liver, kidneys and lungs also were donated.
A couple of the recipients sent her letters, but Bradshaw is the one she’s kept in touch with all these years. “It was a very nice letter,” she says of the letter she received from him about a year after Joe died. She wrote back, and they exchanged phone numbers. Then he brought his family to Houston to meet her.
“It was emotional,” she says. “He was so genuine, so kind. I wanted to meet this man who has my husband’s heart.”
And she got to listen to her husband’s heart beating inside Bradshaw.
There are similarities between Joe and Bradshaw. Joe Montano took good care of his heart. He would run or play racquetball in the mornings. When he died at age 51, he was the age that Bradshaw is now.
Betty Montano and Bradshaw stayed in touch all these years. He continues to text her on her birthday and on the day that her husband died. He texts just: “I’m thinking of you.”
Montano always felt like the heart had gone to the right person. “No doubt about it,” she says.
For Montano, the knowledge that her husband’s heart was beating in Bradshaw was comforting to her. “All these years, I was so proud that Joe still lives on. He gave a part of himself.”
His gift also encouraged his friends and family members to sign up to be organ donors, and some of them now have become donors.
Bradshaw, though, didn’t know how to tell Montano that Joe’s heart was starting to fail and that he needed a new heart. “He was sparing me the pain,” she says. “I understood that.”
Then she saw a picture on Facebook of Bradshaw in the hospital after the transplant. It made her sad, she says. That piece of Joe was now gone.
Montano says she knew eventually Joe’s heart would need to be replaced. “I’m very grateful it lasted as long as it did,” she says.
Recently, Bradshaw called, and they talked for some time and caught up. He reminded her that he would never forget her act of kindness: She had followed her husband’s wishes and given him the opportunity to live 20 years with Joe’s heart.
“I am blessed enough to have two transplants,” he says. He concentrates on doing everything he can to make this heart last as long as Joe’s heart. This February, on the first anniversary of this new heart, he will write a letter to a new family and thank them.
And maybe they, too, will want to listen to their loved one’s heart inside him.
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