2009 brought him two gifts: a heart, and gratitude
January 1, 2010 He's spent decades helping people with mental illness and addictions struggle to get their lives back. And 2009, for Andy Loman, was the year fate returned the favor.
"It's just unbelievable," Loman said last week. "There's no way to describe the overwhelming sense of gratitude you have - especially to the donor and the donor's family."
He's talking about the man, whatever his name was, whose heart now beats inside Loman's chest. The man who died in April, and in doing so ensured that Loman would live to see this New Year's Day.
The man to whom Loman, who's saved many a life over the years as a therapist for Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook, now owes his own.
"I know he donated eight organs," Loman said. "Beyond that, I don't know much about him at all - other than that he was 40 years old, he was a donor and his organs were harvested at the UMass Medical Center in Worcester. And now I've got his heart."
More on that later. First, a little background on Loman.
As manager of co-occurring disorders treatment at Spring Harbor, Loman has long been at the forefront of a now-widespread therapy model. The strategy: Treat mental illness and drug or alcohol addictions simultaneously, rather than one problem at a time.
The treatment philosophy is simple: To help someone overcome their mental illness, you first have to get them straight or sober. And to do that, you have to convince them that their anything-but-easy road to survival requires a huge commitment - of time, energy and, above all, faith.
"These people have had awful lives," Loman said. "They've been victims. They've been abused. They've been maligned. They have really, really tough histories."
So tough that it's not uncommon for patients to tell Loman life is no longer worth living, that they just want to give up.
"I now say, 'I can appreciate your desire to give up. I have felt the same thing,"' Loman said.
It was March 29, 2008. Loman, fit as a fiddle at age 60, with a long list of marathons, triathlons and long-distance bicycle expeditions under his belt, had just finished a challenging workout at a gym in his hometown of Augusta when, without warning, he suddenly felt nauseous.
He lay down on a locker room bench, hoping it would pass. It didn't.
Fellow gym members alerted the staff, who took one look at Loman's pasty color and called 911. It was, as the rescue workers arrived and started checking his vital signs, the end of life as Loman knew it.
"They couldn't get a bottom blood pressure number," he said. "I was having a massive MI (myocardial infarction). And the whole left side of my heart was impacted."
Loman was dying. And as the doctors at Maine General Hospital packed him into an ambulance bound for Maine Medical Center in Portland (strong winds that day had grounded the LifeFlight of Maine helicopter), they told his distraught wife, Debora, that he probably wouldn't survive the trip.
But somehow, he did. And as he was rushed into surgery at Maine Med, Debora took his hand and pleaded, "Don't leave me."
"Don't worry," Loman replied. "I'm not going anywhere."
The heart attack had done massive damage. Emerging from surgery attached to a heart-lung machine, Loman was given a 5 percent chance of surviving the night.
Somehow, he did. And a day or two later, he went back into surgery and came out with a VAD - a ventricular assist device - implanted in his abdomen and wired to a power source by his bedside.
It would be, for the time being, his new heart.
Loman remained in an induced coma for five weeks, unaware that his only hope for long-term survival was a heart transplant.
"The whole time, I was time traveling," he recalled. "I was going to work, going to the health club. I was time-traveling in my mind the whole time I was unconscious."
He awoke convinced that he was in a mental hospital in Boston where he'd once worked.
"I could hear this noise, which was the VAD pumping," he said. "I thought, 'What the hell is this - all these wires coming out of me, all these IVs? And what the hell am I doing in a mental hospital?'"
"You're in Maine Med," the nurse reassured him. "You're in ICU. You've had a massive heart attack."
And, he would soon learn, his dire condition had already put him high on the waiting list for a new heart. There, for almost a year, he would stay.
It was by no means smooth sailing. Infections set in, requiring a dozen more hospitalizations as 2008 rolled into 2009. Fifteen times, doctors had to drain fluid from Loman's damaged lungs.
An allergy to heparin, an anti-coagulant drug, caused his toes to turn gangrenous - all but two had to be amputated.
Twice during those dark days, the call came that Loman was the primary backup for a donated heart - meaning that if the patient ahead of him didn't make it, the heart was his. Each time, the heart went to the other recipient.
This time last year, Loman was at his lowest ebb. He asked Debora if they could skip the Christmas tree - and she quietly agreed.
"I was on the VAD, I was struggling, I was having a lot of infections. I didn't look good and I didn't feel good," he said. "And I wasn't sure that heart was ever going to come."
The call finally came on April 23. Within less than an hour, Loman was aboard LifeFlight, bound for Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, where the implant team was waiting. At the same time, the recovery team was on its way to UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.
Flying over the Maine coast on a postcard-perfect spring day, Loman looked out the window and prayed.
"I was just praying to God how grateful I was," he said. "Finally, after 13 months, I was destined to get a new heart."
Three days later, he opened his eyes. Debora was at his side. And something was very, very different.
"I immediately heard silence for the first time in 13 months," Loman said. "The room was quiet. No pump. I could just sense the feeling that I had a new heart - and I was absolutely amazed."
He's been back to the hospital a few times since for fine-tuning. And he knows that even with a new heart, life hereafter will have its limitations.
But he's seeing patients again - both at Spring Harbor and at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center, which contracts with Spring Harbor for his services.
"I met with a client just this morning," Loman said, adding with a smile. "It was wonderful."
He's also exercising again - come spring, he might even trade the stationary bike in his home for a short spin around the neighborhood.
And this Christmas, Loman announced to his wife that if ever there was a year to put up a tree, this was it. As he hung the decorations, he wept with abandon.
Why the tears?
"Because I was able to really savor the meaning of Christmas," Loman said. "Because I was here and able to really enjoy my family and friends."
And because somewhere in Massachusetts, alas, another family was having an entirely different holiday experience.
Two months ago, the Lomans sent a card and letter through the appropriate channels to the donor's family. They expressed their deep sympathy, their undying gratitude and their fervent hope that someday the two families might meet face-to-face.
"We haven't heard back, but I'm cautiously optimistic," Loman said. "God knows what they must be going through right now."
As for the new decade that dawned this morning, the man whose life was saved in 2009 will go on saving others. Surviving mental illness and addiction may not be as dramatic as having a heart transplant, but the result is the same. Life, for the truly fortunate, goes on.
"I want to honor the donor. I want to honor his heritage. I want to honor his spirit," Loman said. "Without even realizing it, he was the most generous person in the world."
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: email@example.com
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