Marvels of science? Miracles?
It’s not too hyperbolic to refer to Tipton County brothers Randy and Wesley Fowler as such.
According to statistics and doctors, they are supposed to be dead now. However, two decades after they became just the second set of siblings in the United States to have heart transplants, they’re both alive and kicking.
Randy, who is now 53, was the first to get a new heart when he underwent the procedure in May of 1997 at Vanderbilt University Hospital. Almost exactly two years later, Wesley, now 55, received his new ticker, also at Vanderbilt.
“When you talk to a doctor, all they’re talking about are statistics,” Wesley says. “They told us we’d live 10 to 12 years. Everybody I transplanted with is gone. Everybody Randy transplanted with is gone.”
So what’s it like depending on somebody’s death to give you life?
Both men vividly remember the experience of waiting in the hospital, of waiting for good, or bad, news, depending on your perspective.
“When I was in the hospital I had a hard time knowing somebody had to die for me to live,” Randy says. “A preacher came by and I said I couldn’t pray for somebody to die.”
The preacher said, “God, if it’s your will, let it be. There are accidents every day we have no control over. If it’s your will, let Randy live.”
“Every day I said a version of that prayer,” Randy says. “I just kind of mimicked what he said.”
His family was called in one occasion when it looked like death was imminent.
“I was ready to go,” Randy says. “Every day I prayed. I knew the end was near.”
Randy went from 200 pounds to 150 before a donor was found. It came from a 31-year-old man, the same age as Randy at the time, who lived in Dayton, Tenn. The donor had committed suicide.
Two years later, Wesley was going through the same thing when a heart was found. It came from a 19-year-old man who had killed himself after separating from his wife.
“It’s very emotional,” Wesley says. “I prayed daily, ‘Lord, let me see my kids grow up. Let me see them graduate high school. Let me see them go to college.’ You’re sitting there bargaining, bartering, ‘Lord, I’ll do this for you if you’ll help me here.’”
Having a nice head of hair was important to Wesley back then. Now, not so much.
“I was kind of a maniac about my hair,” Wesley says with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Lord, I will never complain if I go bald. You can take every hair on my head.’ Now I’m going bald and I don’t care about it.”
Randy and Wesley both suffer from a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy. It’s a dilation, and often impaired contraction, of one or both heart ventricles. The heart enlarges and cannot pump properly. A healthy heart has an ejection fraction around 67 percent. With DCM, that steadily decreases. Both Fowler brothers were less than 20 percent before their transplants.
DCM is genetic. It is believed that it started with Helen Marie Fowler, the brothers’ mother. She died at 38.
Rodney Fowler, an older brother of Randy and Wesley, started showing signs of the condition when he was 28. He died from the condition six years later in 1990 while waiting for a heart donor.
Cory Fowler, Rodney’s son, died from DCM complications in 2014 at the age of 32.
Other family members have been tested for DCM. Some have it, some do not.
Olivia Fowler, Randy’s daughter, recently put together a family history that appeared in a medical publication. She is an echosonographer, which means she takes ultrasounds of the heart.
Olivia, 26, was drawn to that profession because of her family’s heart issues.
“The heart has always been an interest to me and in this field that’s what I focus on. I have to know almost what a doctor knows because I am their eyes.”
Although Wesley looks just fine when you meet him, he’s playing a waiting game with which he is all too familiar. Doctors say he needs another heart transplant and he’s back on the list.
His transplant coordinator said he would probably have to wait two months, his doctor said seven to nine months and his caseworker said a year. He’s been waiting seven months.
Wesley, and some of his doctors, believe medication he took after the heart transplant caused coronary artery disease. He’s had a stent put in his heart 13 times since the first transplant and his heart is 92 percent blocked.
Two hearts have become available, but both were too small, so Wesley waits.
“My doctors are afraid I’m going to die of a heart attack. One doctor said (life expectancy is) seven years after a second transplant. I said, ‘You might as well have kept that to yourself. That’s not building me up.’”
Both brothers both keep in touch with the families of their heart donors.
Wesley visits with the family once or twice a year and talked with them two weeks ago. The parents of the donor are aware their son’s heart is likely to be removed soon.
“They’re very sad with what’s taking place because this is the last living thing of their child,” Wesley says. “They asked if they can have the heart and want to have a funeral service.”
Hospital representatives ask heart recipients not to identify themselves to the families of the donors until a year after the transplant. After a year of writing anonymous letters, Randy called the mother of his donor.
“I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m the man who received your son’s heart.’ Of course, it was rough on my end and rough on her end. She cried a lot. We both did.”
Both men’s lives changed, in big and small ways, right after their transplants.
Randy had trouble walking more than a few feet in the months leading up to his transplant.
“It’s like having a cement block on your chest at all times,” Randy says when asked how he felt before the transplant. “Right after the transplant the first thing I remember is, ‘Woo, I can breathe.’”
Wesley loved Mexican food and hated Chinese food before the transplant.
“After the surgery I heard nurses talking about Chinese food,” Wesley says. “I asked for fried rice right then and I’ve liked it ever since … My wife joked and said I must have gotten a Chinese guy’s heart.”
Both men shrug when asked to explain why they have doubled the life expectancy of the typical heart recipient. Both men thank God and point to staying busy as very important.
“Some people just give up,” Wesley says.
One thing is clear: Both men are thankful to be alive.
“Four years ago I told my doctor I wanted to see 50 years of marriage,” says Wesley.
That means he would need to live 18 more years.
“The doctor said, ‘We’ll get you there.’ Those are the things you think about. That’s very important to me. If I can get 20 years out this second one, that will be a relief.”
Says Randy: “My daughter was four when I had the transplant. I wanted to see her grow up. I’ve seen her go to college and get her master’s degree. Life’s good.”