Cedars-Sinai Heart Transplant Recipients Play the Doctors Who Saved Their Lives...in Softball

Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai
Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai
Brought together by softball and heart transplants

Talk about a game with heart. Once a year, a bunch of cardiac transplant patients and the Cedars-Sinai doctors who saved their lives get together to play a friendly game of softball. The patients usually win. The doctors usually lose. It's been that way for 20 years.

This year's game took place on a summer day at a park in Culver City, not far from the hospital, about 15 minutes by car. Less by ambulance. "Whatever they want, I'll do it," says patient Richard Channon. "I'll wash cars if they want me to. I was near death at this time last year."

Channon is 66. For a while, he was terrified he wouldn't live to see 67. He'd picked up a parasite in Mexico 10 years ago and his heart had gotten progressively worse. Five hours from death, languishing on the donor list, he got the news: A compatible heart had finally come in.

"If Obama called me up personally to the White House today, I wouldn't go," Channon says. "I'd tell him I have to be here at this softball game. That's how grateful I am."

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He thinks about his donor every day. The fact that he lived means someone else died. Doctors tell you practically everything there is to tell about the donated heart -- blood group, tissue type, size, the kind of itsy-bitsy proteins on the surface of the heart's cells -- except for whose it is. Or was. Channon doesn't even know whether the donor was a man or a woman. Though it's probably not a female, he suspects, because he still doesn't like to shop.

He recalls hearing about a woman listening by stethoscope to the heart of her loved one beating inside the chest of the stranger who had received it. The story makes him want to cry. Would he give up an afternoon to play softball with his fellow transplantees? You bet he would.

His doctor, cardiologist Lawrence Czer, is manning the outfield. Dr. Czer promises to take it easy on the patients. "It's gratifying to see them doing well under normal circumstances," Czer says. "We see them literally at death's door."

Death's door is very crowded these days. In 2010, Cedars-Sinai performed the most adult heart transplants in the world. Czer says he remembers every single transplant patient his team has operated on since 1988. That's more than 600 patients.

He ought to remember. He gets to know these people as no one else does, coaxing them through their weakest moment. He sees them lying in bed, tangled up in tubes, hooked up to machines, poked and prodded and lab-tested into exhaustion.

Gratifying. Exhilarating. These words don't even begin to cover what it feels like to see them hitting home runs in the afternoon sunshine.

Thomas Spears, captain of the patients' team, received his heart last year on Thanksgiving. He'd been waiting six months, artificial heart ticking away beneath his rib cage, biding time. He used to play football for the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders. Then he got hypertension and his heart swelled to gigantic proportions -- from nipple to nipple, esophagus to sternum, a heart as big as an apple pie. It had to go. He has a personality as big as that heart.

"Don't let him intimidate you," Spears calls out to a pale, skinny girl at home base. A beaded necklace strung with plastic skulls bounces against his chest as he talks. "Watch out for doctors. They cheat."

Some patients decide not to play. Like 76-year-old Eddie Laureano. He's feeling a bit tired. He's earned the right to sit on the bench. He received his replacement heart 22 years ago, on Dec. 9, 1989, after his original heart was "eaten by a virus." Known as "lucky 13," Laureano, who worked as a plant operations engineer at Cedars-Sinai, was the hospital's 13th heart transplant patient. He also is known, among his friends and family, as "the $2 million man." This is because back in the late '80s, a heart transplant was still considered an experimental procedure, and Blue Cross, Laureano's insurers, would not cover the operation. So Cedars picked up the $2 million tab. Laureano was employee of the month when Cedars decided to foot the bill for his surgery, and to this day he shudders to think what would've happened if he hadn't been.

Dr. Jon Kobashigawa is pitching for the doctors' team. He's the guy who started the whole doctor-patient ball game picnic thing two decades ago, not to mention UCLA's heart transplant program back in 1984. The picnic was considerably smaller in those early days. Just a handful of patients who wanted to toss a ball around with the university hospital's staff. As the transplant facilities grew, so did the game. When Kobashigawa moved to Cedars-Sinai a year and a half ago, the entire UCLA program -- softball picnic and all -- came with him.

The UCLA/Cedars-Sinai merger has been a killer combo. Or, rather, a decidedly nonkiller combo. Its 92 percent one-year survival rate kicks ass against the 89 percent national average. Its patients have survived to climb mountains.

To Kobashigawa, the ball game represents a return to normalcy. "It represents the spirit of heart transplantation," he says. "There's virtually no other illness where you go from one foot in the grave to walking out the front door."

In a minute, Channon steps up to bat. Kobashigawa pitches, slow and easy. Channon swings, hits, wheezes, stumbles to first base and is out. He wipes his forehead, looking like he's about to pass out but doesn't.

"That was a good hit. Good hit," another patient calls out.

The game runs three innings. It would have gone longer, in the sport's grand tradition, but the doctors don't want patients lingering in the hot sun, overexerting themselves.

The long-term record stands at 17-2. That's 17 wins for the patients, two for the doctors, with two ties -- including this year's game. Final score: 20 to 20.

Of course, it's impossible for either the patients or the doctors to play softball with the people who really saved the patients' lives. The anonymous organ donors, however, are present not just in mind and spirit but in body as well.

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