On April 1, 2011, Dr. Tommy Lee, my trusted Bakersfield cardiologist who had been treating my progressive heart disease for more than 13 years, said, "Roger, you are dying. Your heart is in rapid decline and needs to be stabilized."
He explained that a heart transplant was my only option, but the process is uncertain because of the lack of donated organs. He admitted me to Bakersfield Memorial Hospital and started me on a stabilization regimen of heart treatment drugs that were given intravenously. He then had me admitted to the heart transplant program at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills.
On Aug. 3, 2012, thanks to an anonymous family that donated the heart of their son for transplantation, I climbed Mt. Whitney, less than 16 months after my transplant. It was irrefutable evidence of the miracle of organ donation. The reason my story is exceptional is not because of me. It is because of all those who helped me. I know that when the Lord blesses his children, he usually meets our needs through another person.
My wife, Sue, was with me on the 60-mile trek to celebrate my transplant and our 60th birthdays. Sue likes to point out, however, that she made the hike with her original "old heart." We were joined on the climb to 14,506 feet by our three sons, one daughter, two sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law.
My purpose for climbing Mt. Whitney was to thank all those who blessed my life, and to be an organ donation advocate. Even with the best medical care available, I would not have been able to regain my life without the wonderful people who donated the organs of a loved one.
This is an excerpt of the letter I wrote to my donor family on my one-year anniversary, "It was one year ago tonight that I found out that the next day I would be the recipient of the heart that you so generously donated that I might live. Still grieving for your loss, you showed such compassion and charity by giving me the gift of life."
As I made preparations for our hike, I got permits, purchased dehydrated food and distributed information to family members in Tucson, Salt Lake City and Bakersfield. I also physically prepared myself by using the strength that the heart of a 22 year old gave me. When the day came to begin our hike from Horseshoe Meadow, I put a DONATE LIFE pin on my hiking hat. I wear that pin every day to recognize my donor family and to encourage others to follow their example.
We hiked about four miles the first day and camped at Long Lake, climbing from approximately 10,000 to more than 11,000 feet. When I got in my sleeping bag the first night, my heart was pounding from the exertion and the elevation. For the many years that I had heart disease, a pounding heart was often a precursor to very unpleasant problems such as lightheadedness, fainting or a shock to my heart from my implanted defibrillator. I had to keep telling myself, "You are well now. A pounding heart is a very normal thing for someone who has been exercising. Everything will be OK."
The next day I put on my 35-pound pack again and headed over New Army pass at 12,300 feet to Rock Creek, about 10 miles. As I carried my pack, I thought of how others had often carried me while I was sick. Obviously, my dear wife, Sue, was the one who most often carried the additional burden as we raised our nine children, all BHS grads. She was my rock in tough times and my angel when I needed help. I am so grateful for her and all those who helped me both spiritually and physically.
After camping at Rock Creek, we hiked 11 miles to Guitar Lake. It was a long day hiking through beautiful meadows, pine forests and rocky landscapes. Wearing a pack for so many hours can be uncomfortable. Often, the shoulder strap would press on the spot where I previously had a series of pacemakers and defibrillators implanted in my chest. When I felt the pressure, I remembered how those devices had kept me alive until I could have my transplant. In fact, Dr. Lee told me that I would have died on March 31, 2011 if my defibrillator had not shocked my heart twice to get it pumping again.
A six-day hike gives one a lot of time to ponder. As I ate my breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate each morning, I would take my prescriptions, including my anti-rejection drugs. Looking at the handful of medicine made me grateful for those scientists and chemists who created the drugs that keep me alive.
We summited Mt. Whitney from Guitar Lake, a 3,000-foot elevation gain in five miles. I proudly wore my shirt from Cedars-Sinai Hospital that day so I could send a picture to my doctor as evidence of another successful outcome. Dr. Jon Kobashigawa and his team have created the premier heart transplant program in the world, doing more transplants in 2010 and 2011 than any other facility in the nation. I honor all those associated with Cedars-Sinai and Memorial Hospitals who played a role in my recovery.
I achieved my goal of climbing Mt. Whitney, but my story cannot end there. My transplant did not just give me more time on earth; it gave me back my life. I am a healthy and productive person again, with many years left to contribute to my family and society -- thanks to a donor family. As of today, there are almost 115,000 people on the official U.S. transplant waiting list. Too many of those die needlessly because healthy organs are buried rather than donated. Please decide today if you would be willing to donate. You can save lives and others will eternally honor you.
Roger Allred lives in Bakersfield.