Transplant Survivors Reclaim Their Lives, Find New Purpose; For Two Columbia Men, Locating Donors For Other Recipients Becomes a Mission
by Cathy Lickteig Makofski Special to The Washington Post. Nov 14, 2002

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

T.S. Eliot

Brian Hartford and Bob Moon know a lot about beginnings and endings.

More than a decade ago, each faced the end of their lives, without giving up hope that a donor heart would be found in time to save them. Each man gathered a personal support team and reached deep within himself for the strength to wait it out.

Today both men are healthy, robust and leading full lives. They are among the half-dozen heart transplant survivors in Howard County.

It was a viral infection that over three years destroyed Moon’s heart, weakening its capacity to pump blood and oxygen and ultimately leaving him with barely enough energy to speak or blink his eyes. By the summer of 1993, Moon, who was 54, was confined to an intensive care room at Howard County General Hospital, kept alive by machines and the love of his family.

Finally, the commercial architect was flown to the Cleveland Clinic, where his doctors believed he had the best chance of getting a heart more quickly. For 11 days, he waited on the transplant list.

He said he clung to life by slipping into “a cocoon of things” that made life beautiful. Friends and family members taped his favorite music — classical, opera, the Beatles. He was surrounded by photos of his family, pictures of their trips together and hundreds of cards.

“That became my life jacket as I drifted in and out of consciousness,” Moon said.

On Aug. 18, 1993, his favorite nurse walked into his room.

“We found a heart for you,” she said.

“Oh my God,” Moon remembers thinking. “Then I became very calm and dared to think that the hell my family and I had been through would soon be over.”

Two hours later, he was in surgery.

For most of his life, Hartford worked hard and played hard. He smoked and drank and didn’t let a family history of heart disease interfere. In January 1990, at age 48, he had a massive heart attack. He was stabilized at Howard County General and transferred to Washington Hospital Center, where he soon had two more heart attacks.

For 67 days, he lingered on the transplant list. Hartford relied on his Marine Corps training to carry him through his illness as well as the declining health of his wife, Jeanne, who died of cancer while he was waiting for a heart.

“When I didn’t think I could hang on for another minute, I thought about surviving the bullets and fireballs in Vietnam,” he said. “My sister, friends, stepchildren, hospital staff and even strangers became my family unit and helped me through my war.”

On April 11, 1990, at 3 a.m., the news arrived.

“We have your heart,” his nurse said, wiggling his toes.

“I know you do,” he replied, barely able to utter a sound.

Earlier that day, a spiritual kind of calm had come over him, Hartford said. “I had a deep sense that I would get a heart.”

Six hours later, he was in surgery.

Since Christiaan Barnard performed the first heart transplant in Johannesburg in 1967, thousands of dying people have been saved with what is now almost routine surgery. Last year alone, more than 2,000 heart transplants were performed in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, 85 percent of recipients survive for one year, 77 percent for three years and half more than 10 years.

Both Hartford and Moon are part of a support group — Transplant Recipients International Organization, known as TRIO — that aims to improve the quality of life for transplant candidates, recipients and their families.

Indeed, Hartford, as a TRIO volunteer, first met Moon at Howard County General, not long before Moon went to Cleveland. “Brian was a compassionate friend and an inspiration,” Moon said. “He was also outspoken and irreverent, which I appreciated.”

Hartford and Moon were told very little about their donors other than they were both young men in their twenties. Hartford knows his donor died in a skateboarding accident, but Moon doesn’t know anything about his donor’s death. Like most transplant recipients, all they could do was write a thank-you letter to the donors’ families.

“I tried to let the family know that I regarded their son’s heart as the greatest expression of love humanly possible,” Moon said.

Hartford promised his donor’s family that he “would live a good life as a thank you for the heart and the second chance he was given.”

When he woke up after the transplant, Hartford said, he could feel the warm blood circulating through his hands and down his legs to his toes. “That’s when I knew I would get back to life.”

Moon said from the moment he was conscious he had an incredible feeling that he had been saved. “I was giddy with life because I knew I had made it through the eye of the storm. It was pure magic,” he said, waving his hands gracefully through the air.

Both recovered quickly. Moon was discharged nine days after his transplant and Hartford in 11 days. Initially, there was a regimen of medication, aimed in large measure toward preventing a rejection of the transplanted hearts. Even today, both still take cyclosporin to prevent organ rejection.

From the beginning, they were given a simple prescription: Live your life.

It was a shocking idea and neither was quite sure how to begin. Life without fear? Without limitations? Without the constant surveillance of doctors, friends and family.

With a combination of gratitude and gusto, they began to reclaim their lives.

“My 22-year-old heart just wanted to get moving,” Hartford said.

Shortly after he returned home, Hartford met Dora, who loved to take long walks. Gradually the walks became longer and more strenuous. “They were designed to whip me into shape physically and mentally. Despite my pleas, she refused to let me slack off.”

They were married in 1994.

Immediately after his return home, Moon also began taking regular walks around Columbia where he lived with his wife, Jean, and their two children, Michael and Beth. The exercise helped him reconnect with life in the community where he had lived since 1971.

“Just seeing people going on about their daily lives reminded me that I had my life back and that I was part of something much larger than myself,” Moon said. “I also tore up an old garden in the front of my house, designed a wellness court and planted symbols of life and rebirth.”

Hartford, a life insurance salesman, was a Type A personality before he got sick. Although still driven today, his life has become more focused on family, writing and golf.

“For the first time in my life, I have a sense of what’s going on around me with people and in nature,” he said. “I’ve become a spiritual person and a lay minister at Howard County General Hospital. And how many Marines do you know who would admit they write poetry?”

He also wrote a book, with Peggy McCardle, titled “Change of Heart.”

As an artist, woodworker and architect, Moon’s senses have always been finely tuned, but now he lives with a heightened awareness of everything. “I love the tenderness of dawn, the peace of early morning and the sunsets, whether they are magnificent bursts of color or mere slips of red in the western sky,” he said, as if he were reciting a poem.

Instead of working on huge commercial architectural projects as he had before, Moon now designs a few places of simple beauty just for his friends. He is also serves as the architect on the Howard County Commission for a regional park that is planned at the old Blandair estate in Columbia.

Most strangers are astonished when they find out that the two have had heart transplants. “You look so good,” they often say. Moon loves hearing that. “Brian and I should look good. We have a heart that’s half our age. We can do anything, travel anywhere in the world and eat anything. Brian and I have no restrictions,” he said.

Indeed, Hartford travels extensively with his wife Dora, a native of Iceland. Moon has been to Europe several times since his transplant.

Both men speak frequently to groups about the importance of being an organ donor. “There’s no reason why there should be two people in every cemetery when one can be saved with a transplant,” Hartford said.

Indeed, according to the American Heart Association, transplants have long been recognized as a proven procedure in appropriately selected patients. The most technically challenging part of removing a diseased heart and inserting a donor’s heart has been mastered.

But the hurdle still is finding enough donors for the roughly 4,000 men and women in the United States alone waiting for new hearts — and new beginnings. Spreading the word about the need for organ donations has been a crucial goal for Moon and Hartford.

“And we know this message by heart,” Moon said.