ON FEBRUARY 21, 2018, the thread that held Christine Cheers’s world together ripped clean away. That’s when she answered her phone and heard the words that bring parents to their knees: “There’s been an accident.” Her son, 32-year-old navy flight surgeon James Mazzuchelli, had been injured in a helicopter training mission at San Diego’s Camp Pendleton. If she wanted to see him while he was still alive, she needed to get on the next flight from Jacksonville, Florida—and she needed to pray.
James was still breathing when Christine and his stepfather, David Cheers, arrived at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California, the next morning. Machines were keeping him alive, and the doctors told Christine that what she was seeing was likely his future— that her scuba-diving, world-traveling, overachiever of a son was never going to wake up. He would never breathe on his own. He would never smile at her again.
It was time for Christine to honour the spirit of a man who had switched his major from commerce engineering to pre-med because he wanted to help people. It was time to make her very worst day some stranger’s best one.
Christine instructed the hospital to begin the organ donation process. These few words, as hard as they were to say, would soon ripple outward, allowing a man to return to work, a veteran to get his health back, and an ailing cyclist to get back on his bike.
MIKE COHEN WAS JUST 18 when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia in 2004. Doctors warned him that the treatment protocol could cause lasting damage to his heart. At the time, surviving cancer seemed like the more pressing concern. He even moved from New York to San Diego for his last year of chemo because his oncologist felt that mild weather would be easier on his body. The risk had paid off—two years after his diagnosis, he was cancer-free. And the move had been a good fit, too. As soon as he was healthy enough to get outside, he was hiking or riding his bike.
To celebrate his sixth year without cancer, Mike decided to ride his bike cross-country to New York. From the get-go, it was a grind. What he didn’t know during that ride was that his heart was beginning to fail, and in the years that followed, his health continued to deteriorate. Even on days he didn’t ride his bike, he always felt tired. Then one evening in 2017, he started having chest pains.
His brother, Dan Cohen, rushed him to the emergency room, where doctors discovered a golf ball-sized clot lodged in his left ventricle, one of the most important parts of the heart, responsible for pumping oxygenated blood into the rest of the body. They tried blood thinners, but the clot wouldn’t budge. Soon hospital staff were preparing him for open-heart surgery to install a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), which would do the pumping that his heart couldn’t accomplish.
The implanted LVAD required constant access to an electrical outlet, which meant Mike was tethered to the indoors by a cord that ran out of his abdomen. His old active life seemed like a thousand lifetimes ago. Doctors had told him the device could work for eight months or eight years. Six months later, though, Mike was back in Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center at UC San Diego Health with another clot. His heart was failing. He would need a new one.
Heart transplant priority lists are tricky. You have to be sick enough to truly need the new organ but not so sick you can’t withstand the lengthy surgery or the immunosuppressant drugs heart transplant patients take for the life of the new organ. Mike fit those parameters and was at the top of the list. Now he just had to hope he survived the wait for a new heart.
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