THE BEAT GOES ON: Rhinebeck man celebrates 25 years since first of two heart transplants (video)
Pat Coon continues to set goals for her husband, Alan, and so far, he’s reached every one of them with a grateful heart.
First, it was to see their daughter, Allyson, graduate from high school, and then from college.
Next, it was to be there on her wedding day. That milestone happened in October 2010.
The next goal is to be here when the grandkids come.
“Whenever that first one comes, I plan to stick around and see it,” Alan Coon said from his Rhinebeck home.
Such is life for the 66-year-old heart transplant patient, who has lived 25 years since his first procedure in 1987 at Presbyterian University Hospital in Pittsburgh.
But it’s not just the first transplant Coon has survived.
After his body rejected the first heart — donated by a 29-year-old Ohio man — he had a second transplant at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut in 1993.
Coon most certainly doesn’t take his survival lightly. Continued...
He is a thoughtful man who is both humbled and thankful for each day that he wakes up and puts his feet on the floor.
“I’ve seen friends come and go, and I definitely wonder why I’m still here,” he said.
It is that gift of life that he and his wife are celebrating this afternoon with the community that supported them through their long and trying ordeal.
Alan Coon’s wife is throwing a party from 2 to 4 p.m. at American Legion Post 429 at 6361 Mill St. in Rhinebeck to fete her husband’s milestones, the year-by-year goals he has lived to see.
Coffee and cake will be served in his honor at the 25-year anniversary of life celebration.
“I was lucky enough that somebody had the foresight to donate their loved one’s heart in a moment of tragedy that saved and prolonged my life,” Coon said.
“I’ve seen my daughter grow up and get married. If somebody hadn’t done that for me, I wouldn’t be here.”
Coon’s story dates to December 1986.
He was 41 at the time and was getting set to start his day at C.B. Strain and Son, where he worked as a plumber.
“I was fatigued when I got up and was coughing a lot,” Coon recalled. Continued...
“I went to work, and when I got home, I started a fire in the fireplace and lay down on the floor, and the next thing you know, I was coughing up blood, and the whole scenario started. My whole world came crashing down,” he said.
His wife was 29, and the couple had been married for five years. At the time, the Coons had an 18-month-old daughter.
Coon dragged himself to Northern Dutchess Hospital to get a chest X-ray and he was sent to the intensive care unit.
The next thing he knew, he was on his way to St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, where doctors told him he had a condition known as “idiopathic cardiomyopathy,” or a weakening of the heart muscle that occurs when the heart cannot pump as well as it should.
“Picture, if you will, a tornado that goes through a community and devastates it,” Mrs. Coon said. “The doctors said it was like that, where they knew there was a virus that had destroyed his heart, but there was no evidence of the virus left.”
Coon was told straight up that he needed a heart transplant to save his life.
Because Presbyterian University Hospital in Pittsburgh had made such great strides in its anti-rejection therapies, Coon was scheduled for a transplant there whenever a donor heart became available.
That day arrived on May 24, 1987.
Between then and 1993, the Coons went back and forth to Pittsburgh 40 times, Mrs. Coon said, recalling the financial burdens they accrued and the way the community rallied to support them.
“He had complications,” she said. “From 1992 to 1993, his body was rejecting (the heart).” Continued...
Coon was told he needed a second transplant, so he then was put on the list and waited for about a year before another donor heart became available.
This time, the couple would go to Hartford Hospital in Connecticut.
“On May 8, 1993, we got the call that a heart was available. We had four hours to be there for the heart transplant,” Mrs. Coon said.
The couple packed up quickly and took 8-year-old Allyson along. She was by her mother’s side during the seven-hour procedure.
But even after that, it was far from smooth sailing as Coon developed many complications.
The transplanted heart — donated by a person the Coons had little information about — had “cytomegalovirus,” a common virus that infects newborns, but because Coon’s immune system was weak, it was viewed as a threat.
Coon required chemotherapy treatments at home, which his wife learned to administer with the aid of a visiting nurse.
The episode put a strain on the family and its finances, but the couple pulled together and got through it.
Coon was not able to work again, so he stayed at home to raise the couple’s daughter while his wife went back to work full time.
“I think it’s made us closer because we’ve gone through things that people don’t normally go through,” said Mrs. Coon, a deputy clerk for the village of Rhinebeck. “Every transplant is difficult, and you have to love somebody enough that it overcomes everything. Not everybody can do that.”
Today, Coon seems healthy and strong.
He eats right, keeps his weight at 150 pounds and walks regularly.
And along the way, he has discovered a few new pleasures, like photography and even yard work.
Coon confesses he loves to climb onto his lawn mower to pass the time and keep his grass trim, and he’s also become more community-minded, particularly with area veterans’ groups.
Coon served with the Navy Seabees from 1966 to 1968 and did three tours of duty in Vietnam.
He also enjoys working with wood in his basement workshop and creates lamps, paper towel holders and other items to keep busy.
“I’m feeling really, really well,” Coon said. “I do everything basically that normal people do with tolerance.”
Those who know Coon consider him a miracle, and, indeed, survival rates for transplant patients have risen since he had the surgery 25 years ago.
“Every case is so different, but I can tell you that the life expectancy has dramatically improved over the years,” said Natalia Burkart, the hospital and community services specialist at the Center for Donation & Transplant in Albany.
“I think what’s amazing is we deal with the donor family, and a lot of the situations are very sad and very tragic and very sudden,” she said. “It really solidifies the work we do. It’s an incredible gift. When a family can make a decision, in their darkest hour, to benefit another individual’s life, there’s no greater gift.”
Mrs. Coon now trumpets that message loudly and has become a tireless organ donation advocate in her community and throughout the state.
Not only does she openly share her views with strangers, but she makes sure donor forms are available throughout the village of Rhinebeck, and she has volunteered at organ donor centers.
Statewide, more than 8,000 people are waiting for organ transplants, and of those, more than 6,000 await kidneys; more than 1,500 need livers; and more than 220 need hearts, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
“People survive and live their lives, and if it wasn’t for that gift, they wouldn’t be here,” Mrs. Coon said.
For that, her husband is eternally grateful.
His eyes fill with tears and his voice cracks with emotion when he realizes what it’s meant to him and his family.
“It’s changed how I look at life,” he said. “When you’ve been handed a second or a third chance, you make the most of it, you thank God for watching over you, and you take every day one step at a time with a thankful heart.”
To become an organ donor, check the donor box on your driver’s license application or renewal form or when applying for or renewing a non-driver identification card.
You also can apply online at www.donatelifeny.org.
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