Family House Diaries: A renewed enthusiasm for life

Russell Ford’s enthusiasm for life is contagious. Always has been, but now more so since Ford received a new heart in July.

Ford, 56, a Vance County native who now lives in Four Oaks, N.C., had suffered from congestive heart failure for 10 years. The disease, caused by a congenital heart defect, necessitated that the third-generation textile worker leave the foreman’s job he’d worked up to after starting as a sweeper at the mill as a teenager.
“Some people might have asked ‘why me”, but I asked ‘why not me?’ Russell said in referencing the disability that in his words “stripped us of everything but our faith.”  Efforts by family, friends and churches helped Ford, his wife Lisa and their three children, keep their house and the car they needed to get Ford to and from medical appointments. 

Despite the economic and emotional hardships, the family’s faith provided an acceptance that a plan beyond their control was at work.  “I said to God ‘he’s your son before he’s my husband,” said Lisa, 46, a long-time Lowe’s Foods cashier. “If you decide to take him, we’ll celebrate that we’ve had him as long as we have.” 

Life was hard, but good, until an October 2008 hospitalization for pneumonia. Russell’s heart did fine, but it developed an irregular heartbeat in December, and surgery to implant a pacemaker and defibrillator followed.  Still, Russell’s heart grew weaker. He prayed to live long enough to see his son graduate from high school on June 12.  Russell made it.  

But by mid-July the Fords were talking with a transplant coordinator after Russell had collapsed, once at home and once at a family dinner at Golden Corral in Garner. Each time, his heart stopped, but each time, he came back by the grace of God and the kindness of strangers – EMT personnel, restaurant management and staff, and fellow diners.

Hospitalized since the restaurant incident, Russell’s major body systems began failing and by July 24 he had moved to the top of the heart transplant list at UNC Hospitals.  At noon on July 26, a new heart was available, and surgery began at 5 p.m.  Eleven hours later, a new heart was giving Russell a second chance.  Two days later he was walking, and drainage tubes were being removed in record time.

“I was crying tears of joy, but never in our joy and celebration of new life have we lost sight that another family is mourning,” Russell said, referring to the donor’s family. “I can’t say enough about how great the need is for organs for transplant.”

Russell’s surgery took nearly twice as long as normal due to the congenital defect that made the surgery particularly challenging, said Michael Bowdish, M.D., assistant professor of surgery at the UNC School of Medicine, who transplanted the new heart. 

“The heart started well, and his recovery has been as we expected,” Dr. Bowdish said, adding, “We never lose sight that when a transplanted heart beats, it is a kind of miracle.”

Dr. Bowdish reiterated Russell’s plea for more organ donors.  “While improvements in medical care and in artificial hearts have lowered the death rate among patients awaiting transplants, those artificial devices only delay the need for a heart transplant, which remains the gold standard,” he said.  “And while the overall death rates among patients awaiting heart transplantation have declined over the last 10 years — from 227 per 1000 patient-years at risk in 1997 to 152 per 1000 patient-years at risk in 2006 – still too many people die while awaiting a heart. Improved organ donation rates are imperative if we are to save more people with heart transplants.” 

During Russell’s three-week hospitalization, Lisa stayed at the SECU (State Employees’ Credit Union) Family House, a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for adult patients undergoing treatment for critical illness and trauma and their family member caregivers. Following his hospital discharge on Aug. 14, Russell joined Lisa there before they both returned home on Aug. 19.

“Lisa and our children – Ashley, Jessica and Russell Jr. – needed comfort, and they found it at SECU Family House,” Russell said.  “It was a comfort to me that they were at a safe place.  I went through the hard time, but Lisa deserves the medal.”

On Sunday, Aug. 30, the Fords celebrated Russell’s 56th birthday by leading the service at their church, Baptist Center Church in Clayton.  Their special needs daughter, Jessica, 21, signed the service.  The family will share their testimony again in October at a fundraising concert organized by Russell Jr., 19, a freshman at Mt. Olive College.

Lisa credits the entire experience – from anger with Russell’s illness through his two “deaths”, as she refers to them, and successful transplant surgery to the extended stay at SECU Family House – with helping her and Russell live an earlier dream of being missionaries.

“The awesome part is that so many times through the years of heartache and turmoil, Russell and I have been called to take ourselves out of what we’re dealing with and be there for others, to pray, to hug, to just listen,” Lisa said. “At this point, we’re refreshed missionaries with new material.”

This is the fifth in a new series from UNC Health Care that focuses on the stories of UNC Hospitals patients and their families who live in the SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals while receiving or awaiting treatment.