Retired coaches get new lease on life with heart transplants

BONAIRE -- What were the odds?

What were the odds that two former Houston County educators -- one from Northside, one from Warner Robins -- would reach the end stages of heart disease within months of one another? What were the odds that both would end up on a waiting list with thousands of other Americans for a heart transplant? What were the odds that each would find a donor and have the procedure done by the same Atlanta surgeon? What were the odds that either of them would live to see Christmas 2010, with the prospect of many more to come?

Whatever the odds, Stan Gann and Chip Malone beat them, because it all happened. And more.

Sudden breakdown

Malone is less than two months removed from transplant surgery -- the final of four surgeries he endured during the course of five months. On Nov. 3, Dr. Jeffrey Miller of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta performed the procedure. Hypersensitive to communicable illness and forced to take dozens of pills a day, Malone nevertheless said he feels better than he has since he was a teenager growing up in Mississippi. He’s a new man.

“I had two birthdays in the hospital,” he said.

Malone turned 55 on Oct. 10, about two weeks after he was admitted to St. Joseph’s and about four months after he began to realize he was a very sick man.

Known mostly for his work with the Warner Robins basketball and football teams, Malone gave up his day job after 32 years. He kept a hand in the local sports scene, however, handling field maintenance at McConnell-Talbert Stadium, Rumble Academy and Herb St. John Stadium in Perry. While overseeing the finishing touches on a turf replacement project at The Mac in June, Malone began to feel weak.

Lauriel, the oldest of Chip and Cynthia’s two daughters, was moving to Atlanta, but Malone felt he was too sick to help. In fact, his kidneys were failing, and his body was filling up with fluid.

Dialysis helped, but it wasn’t a permanent solution. In fact, the problem wasn’t with Malone’s kidneys. It was his heart. His right ventricle, one of four valves pumping blood to and from his heart -- and the one designated to send blood to organs except his lungs -- had shut down.

A referral to St. Joseph’s in early September resulted in Malone being identified as a heart transplant candidate. But admission had to be delayed two weeks. At home, Malone suffered from massive swelling in his extremities. There was constant pain below his sternum and a sensation of drowning. He began to doubt the prospects for his own survival.

“Several times when I was at home ... for two weeks there was no place that I could get comfortable,” Malone said. “I didn’t think I had ankles. I had to sleep sitting up, like an animal.”

Admission to St. Joseph’s brought some relief. More dialysis flushed the fluid from his body, and then he began the intense physical and emotional preparation that he hoped would result in one day getting “the call.”

During one of the many October procedures designed for that task, Malone had a visitor.

“There was a couple that came around, and I thought they had the wrong room,” said his wife, Cynthia Malone, who acknowledged the fact that she had never before met Stan or Sissy Gann. “(Stan) came over and took Chip’s hand and said, ‘Hang in there. You’re in the right place.’ ”

Fading to black

Stan Gann knew that of which he spoke. He was at St. Joseph’s that day for a follow-up heart biopsy from his own transplant procedure, which took place July 11.

While Malone had never before had any serious illnesses, Gann, 70, had been waging a battle with heart disease since suffering a heart attack in 1993. He said his downward slide began about five years ago. Getting tabbed for a transplant felt odd but worthwhile.

“It is not a dead end -- that’s a pun,” Gann said. “At least you’ve got an option.”

He was placed on the “critical list” in June -- about the same time Chip Malone’s problems began.

“It was bottom of the ninth, tie ballgame, bases loaded and nobody out,” Gann said, “and I’m pitching.”

Long odds

Getting on a transplant list is no small accomplishment. There has to be a reasonable chance of success. If candidates develop problems with other systems -- or other diseases in general -- they can be dropped to the “B-list” or cut from the program altogether.

Malone faced that very possibility. Even after dialysis, some of his lab values weren’t where they needed to be to survive a transplant. As a result, surgeons cut into his chest and hooked him up to a Biventricular Assist Device. The machine performed the task of his failed ventricle.

“That was my heart on the floor,” Malone said.

The good news is that the B-VAD did its job. Malone’s creatinine levels dropped to acceptable levels. The bad news is that he would be on the machine for only four weeks.

“After that, nobody really knew what would happen,” he said.

Longer odds

Gann said transplant “is a treatment, not a cure.” At the same time, the medical team at St. Joseph’s won’t waste a donated heart on a candidate for whom the organ isn’t a good fit. There are tissue matches, blood-type matches and size matches, among other things. In short, there are a lot of variables.

“You start thinking, ‘What are the chances of this happening?’ ” Gann said.

For many, it never does. According to an Internet source, about 15 percent of candidates die before a donor is found.

The call

Cynthia Malone, who stayed at her husband’s side through the 50-day hospitalization while their other daughter Crystal watched the house, remembers it exactly. At 1:10 a.m. on Nov. 3 -- the first day of Chip Malone’s final week on the B-VAD -- one of his many nurses burst through the door with the announcement any transplant candidate prays to hear.

“We got you a heart!” she said.

That’s where the emotional training comes into play. Within a few hours, Malone was prepped and draped, covered head-to-toe in Betadine solution. Anesthesia was administered in stages. In between, Malone was left alone with his thoughts.

“I was laying there like a corpse,” he said.

His thoughts wandered to a scene at Rumble Academy, where the Demons practiced in preparation for their annual rivalry game with Northside. It was 1992 and former Warner Robins head coach Robert Davis had endured open-heart surgery about one week prior. Davis addressed the team but lacked his typical energy. And he didn’t look so good.

“He was white as a ghost and so weak,” Malone said. “And I was thinking, ‘I hope I don’t look like that.’ ”

Coincidentally, that Northside team was coached by Gann. The Demons won 14-10 with a late goal-line stand. Against doctor’s orders, Davis listened to the game. He returned to the sidelines for the playoffs the next week.

“If my heart could handle listening to that game, it could handle anything,” Davis said.

Gann said Dr. Miller told him that once a donor is found the actual procedure is easier with transplants than with by-pass surgery. It’s really all about matching the heart. What it’s not about is first-come, first-served or other perceived quality of life issues.

“You’ve got to match,” Gann said. “I don’t know how (I) matched. It’s miraculous.”

The road back

Gann now works out five or six times per week. He said it was three months before he was doing “ordinary” things and another two after that before he felt like he did before all the trouble began.

Malone walks -- in the subdivision when the weather allows; at an indoor mall when it doesn’t. With just 170 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame (he lost about 65 pounds), he looks good -- like a skinny teenager.

Both take a pile of pills each day. That will continue to be necessary as long as they live -- a minor trade-off. Five-year survival rates for male transplant recipients are in excess of 70 percent.

One year from their surgery dates, they’ll learn the identify of the donor -- if his or her family gives the OK. The process for each miraculous story begins with tragedy.

“The lives of two families were affected by (the call),” Cynthia Malone said.

But like her husband and the Ganns, Cynthia Malone believes it is a miracle. A miracle of medicine. A miracle of God.

“It’s a very emotional thing,” Gann said. “You’ve got to have faith -- faith in the Lord and faith in the people that did it.”