September 2019

The “widow-maker”

Heart recipient, Richard Henderson

Life was pretty good for Richard Henderson. He was married, professionally employed, and able to both teach and perform music part-time. His cardiac health had never been a concern, and he described himself as being “robustly physical” all his life. That’s why, at 55 years old, a severe and life-threatening heart attack caught him completely off guard.

“I suffered what cardiologists call a ‘widow-maker,’” Richard recalls. “I was taken by ambulance to the emergency room and immediately prepped for quadruple bypass surgery.”

After a lengthy hospital stay, Richard was released to head home. However, his left ventricle was so severely damaged that he began suffering from congestive heart failure. His health declined rapidly. A pacemaker was implanted in his ailing heart, and he was required to wear a vest with sensors 24/7.  Life changed drastically for Richard. His heart was pumping blood at an alarmingly low rate. This made simple tasks, like bending over to pick something up, extremely challenging. Because of breathing difficulty, he had to sleep in an upright position.

“Life looked grim. My wife, son, and the rest of my family were preparing for the worst,” Richard says.

It didn’t take long to be referred to a transplant clinic and placed on the national heart transplant waiting list. Though he was physically uncomfortable, Richard did find some emotional calmness during this time. He had lived his life fully with few regrets. However, the thought of losing the people he loved, especially his 13-year-old son, kept him going.

A Second Chance

At the end of July 2009, Richard receive the call that a heart was available.

“I was relieved and nervous,” he remembers. “Right after the call I experienced a wave of profound gratitude that at least I had a fighting chance.”

The timing was critical. Richard wasn’t aware, but his doctor estimated he would have only made it about three more weeks. Instead, he was wheeled into heart transplant surgery filled with love and support from his family and optimism about the future.

This summer marked Richard’s 10-year transplant anniversary. The hopefulness and positivity he felt a decade ago remains. 

Since his heart transplant, Richard Henderson has rekindled his music career

“That priceless opportunity has created a depth of meaning and quality of purpose that I cherish with profound gratitude and awareness,” he says. “I also discovered the gift of discernment and the irrefutable fact that many people postpone what they most want in life. All you have is this moment, so be present and go for it!”

Richard’s new lease on life provided him an opportunity to pursue dreams and plans he had abandoned long ago. These included moving back to the Pacific Northwest—where he attended college—and rebuilding a neglected music career.

Honoring the Gift

While waiting for his transplant, one of the most potent emotions Richard remembers feeling was the harsh reality that another person had to die in order for him to live. Honoring the magnitude of this gift serves as his inspiration each and every day.   

“Donation is one of the most powerful gestures of human compassion a person can offer,” says Richard, “made even more profound by the fact that it is a gift exchanged between total strangers!”

Shortly after his heart transplant, Richard met the family of his donor. The mother of the young man who saved his life asked if she could listen to her son’s heart beat in Richard’s chest. The opportunity to unite a mother with her son in this way had a profound impact on Richard. Her pain and loss remain, but she is happy to know that her son is helping to inspire creative and positive energy. The two families continue to be in touch.

“I consider them to be the kindest and most generous of all the people I have met in this life,” Richard says. “I cherish, honor, and love them as if they were my own family – and in some ways, they truly are.”