IT TOOK SEVERAL drafts to get the letters right. To distill her boy’s life into the two-dimensionality of words on paper. To paint a picture of someone so full of energy and love so that the beneficiaries of his death, the recipients of his organs, would know just how lucky they were.
Three weeks earlier, the thread that held Christine Cheers’s world together had been ripped clean away. On February 21, 2018, someone on the other end of the phone had said 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 Camp Pendleton. If she wanted to see him while he was still alive, she needed to get on the next flight from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Diego—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 honor the spirit of a man who had switched his major from commerce engineering to premed 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’d been 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 took his treatment seriously, doing the radiation and chemo and even moving 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. A casual cyclist as a kid, Mike became bike-obsessed.
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. Somewhere in eastern Arizona, Mike was so over it he nearly threw his bike into oncoming traffic.
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. 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 literally tethered to the indoors by a cord that ran out of his abdomen. Even with an emergency backup battery pack, “You couldn’t go out in public because you couldn’t trust that someone wouldn’t knock into the cord,” he says. 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.
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