Dr. Charles Kleinman, 2009

Photo Phonica

Dr. Charles Kleinman. Commission for NPR, 2009.

10 years ago, I met Dr. Charles Kleinman, a renown cardiologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital, for an incredibly emotional story about both sides of a heart transplant where the donor’s family and recipient got in touch with each other. Dr. Kleinman was the recipient and the donor was a teenager from Long Island named Marc Dawson, who drowned in the winter of 2008.

After I was finished taking pictures, Dr. Kleinman and I spent a little time talking in his office. “What was it like to get a new heart? How did it feel?” He told me “Oh, well it’s a big difference, before, with my failing heart, I couldn’t hardly make it up one flight of stairs”, the 62 year old told me, “With a 17 year old heart, I could leap up the stairs.” But he did say there was some drawbacks. He explained that when they take the old heart out, not only do they have to cut the major blood vessels (which they are obviously able to reconnect) they also have to cut the vagus nerve that connects your heart to your brain. Currently there is no way to completely restore the parasympathetic connection between the heart and brain. As an example, he told me that when he is speaking around the country, the topic of the transplant comes up, and he naturally becomes emotional. He said that he no longer feels the feeling you get when you are about to cry and suppress it. The result was, he said, “I openly weep in front of a room full of cardiologists.” As I walked away from the hospital, I couldn’t get my mind off what it would be like to not be able to feel my own heart. I honestly hadn’t realized that I had been feeling it all along. All those times I felt emotional in a movie, said goodbye to someone at the airport or when I saw my own daughter’s heart beating on the sonogram–that was MY heart I was feeling.  Without even one incision, Dr. Kleinman had given me a new heart. And now I am telling you. That is YOUR heart you are feeling. What is it telling you?

Marc Dawson’s heart kept Dr. Charles Kleinman alive for another two years after I met him. He died October 2011.