Mechanical devices and a 2008 transplant sustain local man whose organ faltered
Everyone has a heart, but few people can say they’ve had four in one lifetime. But that’s exactly how many hearts James Earp has had in his 67 years.
His journey began in 1990, when he contracted viral pneumonia and landed in the hospital with a fever of 107 degrees. Earp recovered from the pneumonia, but was left with a severely damaged heart. Doctors told him and his wife, Mary, that he’d likely be dead from heart failure before his 60th birthday.
“Before all the hearts, there was a time I thought it’d be better if I died,” said Earp, a Denton financial adviser. “Mary and I had literally planned my funeral.”
Earp was barely able to move and spent most of his time sitting in a chair — waiting for his last breath — when doctors offered him a second chance, a gamble of sorts. He could buy some more time by allowing doctors to place a heavy, metal heart in his ailing body. In May 2005, he received his first of two mechanical hearts — three years before finally receiving a heart transplant.
A mechanical heart
Earp, who is 6-foot-4, is a large man. He was a 44-year-old father of two when he first learned of his degenerative condition.
“My doctor said, ‘You have something weird going on with your heart,’” he said while sitting in an oversized chair in his living room.
Just as his doctors had predicted, at the age of 59, Earp’s heart was greatly enlarged and pumped at only 5 percent capacity.
“He [the doctor] was spot-on,” Earp said. “There didn’t seem to be any hope.”
He had to make a decision — a life-changing one. Was he ready to die or would he be willing to take a chance with the mechanical heart and live?
But there was a caveat: Only 25 percent of mechanical heart recipients were still alive two years after implantation surgery, according to statistics.
As a man of faith, Earp said he turned to the Bible. In those pages, he found the conviction to keep living.
In May 2005, he received his second heart, the first of two mechanical ones, at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas. He spent nine days in the intensive care unit and began suffering delusions that he would be governor one day.
His new heart was working and his body was adjusting to it. Each of the 130,000 beats a day shook his body. It was loud and people could hear it.
While he was recovering, the “campaign” for governor that was going on in his head consumed his days and nights. He recalls vivid memories of fundraisers where volunteers served waffles and maple syrup.
When his sister came to visit, he wrote her a note that read, “Sister, I think I’m going to become the governor of Texas.”
Earp was suffering from ICU delirium, a condition that can cause patients to experience anxiety, become paranoid, hear voices, see things that are not there and become severely disoriented in time and place.
Soon Earp became known to many as the “Governor.”
But life wasn’t exactly easy with his new heart.
The large shiny metal heart looks more like something that belongs in a car engine. It weighs nearly 5 pounds and is powered by electricity. A 17-foot-long cord ran out of his abdomen and plugged into a machine wired into a wall outlet.
“It’s essentially like a water pump with bearings,” Earp described it.
There would be no more showers. No more leaving the house for more than a few hours at a time. On those occasions, he was required to wear a heavy battery pack that hung on his back.
And Earp’s body rattled with every beat. The possibility of power failures was pretty scary.
Another broken heart
About a year later, the couple’s son, David, who’d been sick for a while, was at the end of his battle with Hodgkin’s disease.
“I prayed that God would let him live and let me die,” Earp said.
On May 31, 2006, David died, leaving Earp and his wife with another kind of broken heart.
“Emotionally, the hardest part was watching David deteriorate,” Earp said.
The grief was overwhelming, alongside Earp’s own health issues, but he said he believes he is still living for a reason.
“David fulfilled his purposes and you’d better live well,” Earp said with tears welling in his eyes. “Every day we say, ‘God, may we live well.’”
Later that year, in November, Earp’s mechanical heart was wearing out.
It would be nearly impossible to receive a transplant before his mechanical heart completely quit. Plus with his size, he wasn’t the best candidate.
“Gov, we can’t put a lawnmower heart in an 18-wheeler,” he recalled his doctor telling him. “It’s going to have to be a college lineman.”
Earp’s only option was to buy more time with a second mechanical heart.
So he did.
As luck would have it, after receiving his second mechanical heart, Earp found himself on the transplant list.
“There were some people who felt like I had a purpose,” he said, adding that it’s a somewhat political decision on whether a person has a chance of finding a heart and surviving the transplant process.
After two “dry runs,” he finally got the call.
“Keep your phone charged,” the transplant coordinator warned when she called Earp on May 14, 2008.
But after two false runs, Earp wasn’t confident that he would get the transplant.
Besides, Mary was out of town and he had planned to go to the Rangers game with his son-in-law and grandson.
Then another call came. This was really happening.
He drove himself to the hospital, where Mary met him and they waited.
At the same time, across town at Methodist Dallas Medical Center, there was sadness. Another family was saying their goodbyes to their father, husband and son.
James Aston, a strong, 260-pound weightlifter, had taken his own life.
But his wife chose to give life to four others who needed his organs — two kidneys, a liver and a heart.
“It was a family decision,” Calista Aston said. “We really didn’t think about it.”
Early the next morning, Earp was taken to the operating room, where he received a live, beating heart — one that didn’t jostle his insides with every beat.
After the transplant, more surgery lay ahead. The clanging mechanical hearts had wreaked havoc on Earp’s insides.
Surgeons had to install a pig mesh to secure his internal organs.
During his recovery, he got word that the donor family was open to meeting him.
He and Mary arranged to meet Calista Aston and her three children at a restaurant in Sanger. That meeting created a lasting bond that the two families hadn’t anticipated.
“We had no clue what work God was going to do with that decision [to donate her husband’s organs],” Aston said, adding she felt nervous and excited about meeting the Earps. “There are so many blessings that have come out of that decision.”
But one thing stands out most to Earp. At their first meeting, Aston’s son Nickolas asked him, “Can I put my ear against your chest and hear my dad’s heart beating in you?”
“I cannot think of a better picture to encourage the donation of organs than having Nickolas stand with his ear next to my chest, listening to the heartbeat of his father’s heart in me,” Earp wrote in his 2011 memoir, The Governor’s Four Hearts.
January 1990 — James Earp gets viral pneumonia and is diagnosed with heart failure.
May 15, 2005 — Receives his first mechanical heart.
May 31, 2006 — Son David dies from Hodgkin’s disease.
November 2006 — Receives his second mechanical heart.
May 15, 2008 — Receives a heart transplant.
How Earp has commemorated his new heart:
July 7, 2008 — Threw the first pitch at Rangers game in Arlington.
July 7, 2011 — Visited the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa.
July 7, 2014 — Will throw the first pitch at a baseball game in Cooperstown, New York.