by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t 60 years of age, Dave Eubanks has a young heart. No, we don't mean that he still plays with Tonka trucks in the sandbox -- although he may -- but he actually has the heart of a 23-year-old beating in his chest. It was given to him as a parting gift by an unidentified organ donor earlier this year after his own heart had failed catastrophically five years ago, leaving him in bad shape and with little hope.
"It's like being given a complete second chance at life," he says, pointing out the glorious rainbow embracing the wheat field at "The Funny Farm" just south of Coeur d'Alene, where he lives with his wife Sheri and five kids.
It's hard to tell Eubanks' story without thinking about the character Job from the Bible. Both had lived their lives the best they knew how, only to be visited with calamity and then offered a miraculous new lease on life. Eubanks, a teacher at Lakes Middle School in CdA, didn't drink or smoke; he worked out to stay in shape. Since the 1980s, he and his wife had opened their home as foster parents to no fewer than 64 special-needs kids. They raised five birth-children and adopted five more who have Down Syndrome.
Then, at 55, Eubanks had a sudden and severe heart attack while running on a treadmill at the gym. "The capillaries in the whites of my eyes had exploded, and I had blood running down my face," he says. Most people do not survive a heart attack of that magnitude. He was taken to Kootenai Medical Center and then airlifted to Sacred Heart Medical Center, where doctors inserted a stent and later performed triple bypass surgery.
"Since then, I was never well," he says. He was functioning on half a heart -- the other half was dead scar tissue. He lost weight and was not getting enough oxygen to his brain. Complications developed with his breathing. "It felt like drowning," he says, describing several incidents in which he thought he was going to die.
One nasty episode landed him back at KMC where doctors installed a pacemaker. It didn't help. They sent him back to SHMC for a new and improved unit, but that didn't work either. He had no energy and was losing his balance. His hearing and vision were failing. His entire family had been on a traumatic, emotional rollercoaster for several years and it looked like the end of the ride. With "a bag of oatmeal" for a heart, Eubanks was dying.
That's when doctors began to consider him as a candidate for a heart transplant at SHMC. The screening process is tough, and it guarantees nothing but a place on a long list with others who are waiting for donated organs.
"There's always a tremendous demand and a very limited number of donors," says Dr. Timothy Icenogle, Sacred Heart's lead cardiothoracic and transplant surgeon. "Organs in this region are shared through a wide geographic area so that a donor here may first go to a patient in Salt Lake City or California ... whoever's on the top of the list within so many hundreds or thousands of miles gets the organ."
Patients are also screened to determine who will benefit the most from the procedure. Smokers and people with chronic alcoholism or drug abuse, or anyone with a history of medical non-compliance, according to Icenogle, are eliminated from consideration. "If we put a very precious donor heart in them, they will not take care of it," Icenogle says.
Aside from his heart, Eubanks was determined to be in near-perfect health -- a prime candidate for a transplant. The severity of his condition put him high on the list, and in 17 days, a donor was found who matched his rare blood type. On Feb. 1, Icenogle flew to an undisclosed location, personally "harvested" the organ, and Eubanks got a fresh young heart grafted into his chest along with much of the surrounding vasculature.
After dealing with a few common issues in the recovery period -- including the psychological battle of knowing that someone else had to die so that he could live -- Eubanks is back at the Funny Farm with a new zest for life. "I get up joyful every day," he says. "For the first time since that heart attack, I feel like there is a tomorrow." He considers himself not only better, but completely cured of his ailment. "I feel younger and stronger than I have in years," he says. "I've been digging sprinkler lines and trenches, and hefting wheelbarrow-loads of dirt around, and it's just amazing how things have turned around." After the heart attack, Sheri frequently checked up on him when he was working to see if he was OK. Now, she doesn't even bother.
"I wasn't a very spiritual person before this," he says, "but I am now." He has also become a locally known activist for organ donorship. "You're not going to need these organs when you're dead. It's not a question of why you should do this, but why not?"
Eubanks says that he never enjoyed gardening, but began envisioning gardens surrounding his house while recovering from the surgery. Since then, he's been hard at work making them a reality, even planting a hundred fruit trees. The lore among heart transplant doctors and patients, apparently, is that everyone who gets a new heart experiences some kind of change. Asked if he got a gardener's heart, Eubanks replies without hesitation, "Yeah, I think I did."