For 26 years and ticking, Vancouver resident Richard Moody has been living on borrowed time. He’ll mark the anniversary of his heart transplant on Monday.
Like other transplant recipients, Moody knows that his gift of life came at the expense of another family’s loss. Unlike most transplant recipients, however, Moody has developed a long and healing friendship with the family of the woman whose untimely death extended his years.
“I remember him asking me what he should call me,” Jackie Schulze said. “I told him I was the mother of his heart.”
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Moody is among 2,353 patients who received heart transplants nationwide in 1995, according to the nonprofit United Network for Organ Sharing, which manages the U.S. organ transplant system under contract with the federal government. A slender fraction of them — one-fifth — survived longer than 20 years.
Moody, 75, scrupulously maintains a healthy lifestyle. He walks every day with his husband, Carl Caspersen, through their Fairway Village neighborhood. He takes pills to lower his blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as three different medications to keep his body from rejecting his transplanted heart even after all these years.
He’s careful about what he eats, opting for lots of vegetables, with some poultry and fish — rarely any red meat. He doesn’t drink alcohol.
“He’s very careful about doing what he should do, but basically doesn’t let it be a big deal,” said Caspersen, a retired teacher like his husband.
Moody keeps busy with watercolor painting and quilting, but he recently joined an online support group for heart-transplant patients.
“I don’t really feel like I need that kind of support because it’s been so long,” Moody said. “But I don’t mind being involved in the group so they can see what it looks like to be 25, 26 years out and alive.”
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When Moody was 40, he started having mysterious, nagging pain in his left shoulder.
“It was finally diagnosed as something going on with my heart,” he said.
He had suffered two silent heart attacks. He underwent a double bypass surgery, which was initially successful. Then one of the bypass arteries collapsed.
“The surgeon told me that he would give me five years on that heart,” Moody said. “I lasted 10 years. Then I got up one Saturday morning having chest pain. The cardiologist said, ‘Meet me at the hospital.’ He did an angiogram and decided I really needed a transplant.”
After his doctor debated with the transplant team about whether Moody was sick enough to merit a new heart, he was added to the list to await a donor.
Moody received a pager to carry with him everywhere. He had to stick close to home in Portland, where he lived at the time, and be ready at a moment’s notice to head to the hospital.
He taught second and third grade at Durham Elementary in Tigard, Ore., so he let his principal know he would have to take time off. He asked a friend to stay on alert to drive him to the hospital.
After a false alarm when his garage door opener somehow set off the pager, the call finally came.
His sisters and other family members were jubilant. Moody reminded them, “This is really happy for us but it’s not for somebody else.”
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Jennifer Schulze traveled home to Aloha, Ore., during her first year at Colorado State University to visit her parents and her sister, Kim, for Mother’s Day 1995.
“We hadn’t seen her in four months,” her mother, Jackie Schulze, recalled. “It was wonderful to see her.”
Jennifer and a group of friends decided to visit Multnomah Falls.
That afternoon, the Schulzes received a call that Jennifer had been in a wreck. A car carrying Jennifer and three others hit a guardrail and flipped on Interstate 84.
Someone had died at the scene, but the Schulzes didn’t know if it was Jennifer or one of her friends.
They later learned Jennifer was still alive and in surgery at Legacy Emanuel hospital in Portland. Jackie Schulze and her husband, Pete, rushed over. But Jennifer, who was in a coma and on life support, would not survive her injuries.
When Jennifer first got her driver’s license, she told her parents that she wanted to donate her organs if she died unexpectedly. “Good to know,” Jackie Schulze recalled thinking at the time. “But what could possibly happen to her?”
When a nurse asked about harvesting Jennifer’s organs for donation, the Schulzes knew the answer.
“We said, yes, we wanted to donate,” Jackie Schulze said. “That was like being able to give her last wish.”
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Surgeons at Oregon Health & Science University sawed through Moody’s breastbone, cut out his damaged heart, sewed in the new one and wired his ribs back together.
Recovery was grueling, he said.
“I had the hiccups for more than 24 hours after surgery,” he recalled.
Pain wracked his body with each hiccup. To stop the hiccups, doctors gave him the heavy-duty drug Thorazine, just one of many medications he received.
Several drugs combined kept his body from rejecting the heart, including the steroid prednisone. Moody said he recently found an old journal from that time.
“Parts of it are very depressing to read,” he said. “The prednisone can make you feel really depressed — and I was. But, you know, you work through all of it.”
In physical pain and emotional turmoil, Moody was in no condition to think about who had died to give him life.
Parents of his students combed through The Oregonian to find the likely source of his heart in the obituary section: 19-year-old Jennifer Renee Schulze, a 1994 graduate of Hillsboro High School who “died May 16 of injuries suffered in an auto accident.”
“I really did not want to know,” Moody said. “It was way too early in the game to know that.”
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A few weeks after Jennifer died, the Schulzes learned more about who was helped by pieces of their daughter — her kidneys, pancreas, liver, rib cartilage, corneas and heart. Transplant recipients are encouraged to write letters, kept anonymous, to donors’ families. Jennifer’s heart, the Schulzes learned, went to a teacher who enjoyed baking.
The Schulzes took solace in news of the lives saved. Less than a year after Jennifer’s death, Jackie Schulze had already enrolled in training to give talks about organ donation, beginning decades of volunteer work for the National Kidney Foundation.
Jackie Schulze helped with the Oregon Donor Program’s “Threads of Life” commemorative quilt. At a 1996 event, transplant recipients and donors’ families presented their quilt squares.
That’s where Schulze encountered her daughter’s heart again, pumping inside Richard Moody’s chest.
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Moody attended the event with Carl Caspersen and a friend who had cross-stitched a heart on a square of fabric for him to contribute to the quilt.
They sat and listened as transplant recipients and donors’ families presented their squares.
“A woman got up and started talking, and I knew that was the mother. After she finished, I went up and looked at her quilt square and it was a picture of her daughter,” Moody recalled. “I said to Carl, ‘I think I should just go back and meet her.’ ”
Jackie Schulze remembers the moment well.
“Richard came up and said, ‘I think I’m one of your recipients,’ ” Schulze said. “I don’t know why — we had gotten the letters — but I said, ‘Are you the teacher?’ I knew: There was her heart recipient.”
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Schulze and Moody have remained friends since, getting together for the occasional walk or to celebrate milestones together.
They have the sense that their friendship is rare. A UNOS spokeswoman said there’s no way to know for sure because the nonprofit doesn’t track how often transplant recipients meet donors’ families.
Schulze attended Moody’s wedding to Caspersen, as well as his 70th birthday party.
“You know how you meet someone by accident, and you’re really happy you met? That’s how I feel about Richard,” Schulze said. “I wouldn’t have been smart enough to pick Richard. He got Jennifer’s heart and it started beating right away. He’s kind and compassionate and talented — someone Jennifer would have really liked.”
Over the years, Schulze and Moody gave many presentations together about the importance of organ donation.
“His friendship has meant the world to me,” said Schulze, now 77 and a widow.
She said the benefits of organ donation are obvious for recipients but are also profound for donors’ families.
“It’s strange for some people to think about it, but I’m thankful every day. I’m not thankful Jennifer died, but I’m thankful for all the good things that came out of it,” Schulze said. “If we hadn’t donated Jennifer’s organs, she would have died, but Richard would have died too. Look at all the people he is affecting because he’s still living.”