Transplant recipient looks back

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 23, 2002

Mary Briggs celebrates a birthday of sorts this week.

It’s been 17 years since she received the heart transplant that gave her back her life.

Of course, strictly speaking, that’s not true.

The old Mary Briggs, the one who stares back at you from the high school graduation photo hanging on the wall in the home of her parents, John and Celeste Briggs, is no more.

That Mary had long blond hair and eyes that looked out on a life that held endless possibilities. Always sensitive and idealistic, that Mary turned her desire to help people into a rewarding career as a social worker with the Department of Human Resources.

But that Mary had a heart murmur. The heart that enabled her to look with such compassion on the people she met in the course of her job turned out to be too weak for the much less demanding task of simply pumping blood.

A new Mary has taken her place, one whose world is defined less by possibilities than by limitations.

Modern technology gave Mary Briggs another shot at life, and for that she will always be grateful. But technology has its limits. Technology replaced her heart, but it could not give her back her old life.

And every day for 17 years now, Mary has had to make peace with the new life that technology has given her.

Mary was 27 before doctors discovered she had a heart murmur. Over the course of the next 10 years her heart problems would gradually claim a bigger and bigger portion of her life. She underwent open-heart surgery. She had a couple of pacemakers installed. She took a series of experimental drugs.

(Celeste is actually Mary’s stepmother, but, as she explains, &uot;I’ve had her for 38 years, so I claim her.&uot;)

In the weeks leading up to her transplant, Mary stayed at a facility operated by the University of Alabama in Birmingham Hospital. It served as staging area for others who were awaiting organ transplants of one sort or another.

She remembers, too, that some of her new family died before a donor could be found. And she remembers how the others closed ranks and tried not to dwell on the fact that they could be next.

As fate would have it, Mary was one of the lucky ones. Celeste still remembers the phone call that a donor had been found.

Celeste remembers going up to the roof to watch the helicopter land. She remembers seeing two doctors emerge carrying the Igloo ice chest – &uot;I never will forget that&uot; – that held her daughter’s last best hope for life. She remembers how they held the elevator doors open so that the doctors could go straight to the operating room with no delays.

Mary never learned the donor’s identity, other than that he came from the Phenix City-Columbus area and that he died in an auto accident. &uot;That’s really up to the donor’s family, whether they want to share that information,&uot; she says.

She has spoken in support of becoming an organ donor on a number of occasions since receiving her new heart, but it’s not a role that she feels comfortable playing. &uot;I’m not much of a speechmaker,&uot; she explains. &uot;It’s not something I do unless I’m asked.&uot;

Much of Mary’s new life still revolves around her health. There are endless rounds of tests and medications and heart catheterizations.

Mary and her mother are grateful for the many expressions of support they have received through the years. Mary notes that she had no heatlh insurance at the time of her transplant. The operation was completely paid for by donations from friends and well wishers in the Selma and Dallas County area. &uot;I’m a community effort,&uot; she says with a wry smile.

Mary admits that from time to time she finds herself wondering why her life turned out the way it did, and just what it all means.