He helped pave way for transplants

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 22, 2012

I don’t think I will ever hear of any type of organ transplant without thinking of the late Richard Weeks. He was the 66th patient to get a heart transplant at the University of Alabama Birmingham hospital. He was the 48th male transplant patient and the 27th Alabamian to receive a transplant since UAB physicians started performing the surgery in 1981. I don’t have the latest figures, but according a 2009 compilation, 626 adult heart transplants and 88 pediatric heart transplants had occurred at UAB by that time.

As a reporter at The Foley Onlooker when Weeks underwent the surgery, I followed his story. In July 1985, he was airlifted to UAB from Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola. His life hung from a thread. A heart transplant was the only hope for the 49-year-old man. The donor was a 29-year-old male.

I spoke with his wife Carol when she was at his bedside following the surgery. After his release from the hospital, I interviewed them at their Magnolia Springs home. Weeks quipped that he grew a beard as a new image to make him look younger. He told me a man in a grocery store asked him how it felt to have someone else’s heart. He said, “I told him that it was great. I’m alive. If it hadn’t been for the donor, I wouldn’t be. I don’t think about it much. It’s my heart now. The sad thing about it is that somebody died.”

Weeks impressed me with his good outlook on his experience. He liked to joke with me and once laughingly chided me for not checking on him more often. His life had changed drastically. It was not easy for a transplant patient. He lived with the possibility of his body rejecting the heart, and he faced taking medication for the rest of his life. Sometimes he had trouble with the medicine that sent him and Carol on the road to see his doctor at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola. Then there were the check-ups in Birmingham where he had extensive exams and biopsies to determine if his body was trying to reject the new heart.

He had to exercise regularly, walking and using an exercise bicycle. He had to stay away from anyone who had a cold, virus or anything contagious. His diet was restricted. He ached. Occasionally he got depressed. But the six feet, 4 inches tall Weeks was optimistic. He returned home wanting to put in a garden. And he did.

Richard Weeks died shortly before Thanksgiving 1986. He fought the good fight for 16 months, enjoying life as best he could. According to Carol, there were no regrets. She was proud he lived 16 more months and was willing to talk about his experience in hopes it might help others in their decisions.

I look upon him and his doctors as medical pioneers. Who knows what was learned through transplants as early as his that might even today benefit others?