Thanksgiving Story

Since this is my personal very all-time favorite Thanksgiving story, I updated it and am re-running …it was  published in the East Valley Tribune in 2008. Enjoy! DM

When mowing the lawn became too physically demanding, 32-year-old Terry May knew something was wrong.

He soon had a stunning diagnosis of primary pulmonary hypertension, an acute lung disease for which, in 1983, there was no cure. The doctors told him he’d have about another year to live.

They were wrong.

Most of us spend Thanksgiving eating lots of turkey, watching football and being thankful for a couple of days off work. May, a Chandler man, celebrates true gratitude for a life extended. This Thanksgiving Day marks the unbelievable 23rd anniversary of life after his heart/lung transplant.

There was nothing special about May. Raised in a lower-income area by a single mom, he learned to keep a low profile and just get through life. After high school, he joined the U.S. Army, and like many “Children of the ‘60s” began smoking pot, then selling it for a little extra income. He was a decent enough guy who wouldn’t consider stealing or hurting anyone, but didn’t have much direction or motivation.

Soon after May got out of the Army, an old friend introduced him to his cousin Jane and things changed. He got married and, with Jane’s encouragement, got a college degree in accounting.

Life was fine.

But one sunny day, May had to take frequent breaks to catch his breath as he mowed the lawn. An active, healthy young man, he didn’t suspect anything could be seriously wrong, but soon found out he had primary pulmonary hypertension, an incurable lung disease.

“When they told me I’d have a year or, if I was lucky, a little longer to live, I was pretty shocked,” May said. “I remember thinking, ‘Do I have any options or is this it?’”

The Mays started researching and found that a lung transplant had been successfully performed at Stanford University.

“We were so thrilled to have this lifeline,” Jane recalled. “They told us he was a perfect candidate and they’d be happy to do the transplant, but they’d need $100,000. That was more than most houses cost back then.”

The May’s modest earnings put the operation far out of reach and because the procedure was still considered experimental, insurance wouldn’t cover it. They were crushed.

Terry continued to work for eight months before becoming completely disabled and requiring full-time oxygen. Then another blow was delivered as he was told his heart was enlarged. This often happens, due to the increased work load to support failing lungs.

“Knowing that I was likely to die soon, I thought, ‘I need to look into the claims of Christianity, and if I’m going to believe it, it will have to be for real and forever,’” May said.

While he waited and hoped for a transplant, or some other miracle, he read through the entire Bible and the New Testament twice.

The couple then learned that the University of Arizona Medical Center was in the process of getting an experimental heart/lung transplant approved. May was deemed the ideal candidate. With the tiny exception of $100,000 as a partial down payment, they were ready to go. The transplant option seemed to be slipping away.

Dr. Jack Copeland, who performed the first ever artificial heart transplant at the U of A, didn’t give up. He convinced the insurance company to pay for the heart portion of the transplant. The hospital agreed to cover the additional expenses because May was the first to have a heart/lung transplant at the university and one of only about 50 in world.

“Now, instead of waiting to die, I was hoping to live,” May said of the time he waited for a donor.

The phone was always next to Terry, and Jane carried a pager at all times. On Thanksgiving Day 1985, the Mays decided to get Terry out (oxygen tank in tow) to a family dinner. Jane’s pager got jostled and accidentally switched off in her purse. For once, they were not thinking about illness or transplants.

Sadly for one family, a woman died on this same Thanksgiving Day. She was an organ donor and a precise match for May, but where was he? The transplant team couldn’t reach him after repeated calls and pages. They tried calling other Mays in the Phoenix phone book and even sent the police to his home.

“Sitting down to eat our holiday dinner we weren’t watching the football game and missed the words scrolling across the screen on national TV,” May said, shaking his head and smiling at the memory. “Medical Emergency. Terry May: contact U of A Medical Center.”

“Fortunately, many friends saw it and the phone began to ring,” May said. “We called immediately. The hospital told us about the donor and asked how long until we could get there. We knew that if we broke every speeding law, it would still be at least two hours. We were told the organs wouldn’t survive that long.”

“How could this be happening?” Jane wondered. “We were frantic and didn’t have any idea what to do next.”

The local ABC TV affiliate saw the message and contacted the hospital to get the story. When they learned of the dilemma, they sent their news helicopter to a nearby park, and the Mays were whisked away to Tucson.

They were allowed a few “last moments” together and Jane, overwhelmed with emotion, tried to offer her husband encouragement, but few words would come.

“As strange as it may sound, I felt no fear at all,” May said.

“Don’t worry, either way,” May told Jane as he was being wheeled into surgery. “I’ll either wake up in heaven or have many more years with you on earth.”

May survived the surgery and was told he would have probably only lived another month without the transplant. The doctors predicted he would live at most another five years with the transplant and he was grateful for the extra time.

Their first daughter, Chelsea, was born a year-and-a-half later and their second, Katelyn, was born five years after that.

In July  2010, more than 24 years after his transplant, Terry May welcomed his grandson, Noah Jeffrey Markins into the world. He’s looking forward to watching his yougest daughter, Katelyn, graduate from high school in May 2011 and continues to lead an active, productive life.

May, likely the longest known survivor of a heart/lung transplant, thought he was nothing special, but he believes God allowed some extraordinary things to happen so he could live. He still amazes doctors and this Thanksgiving he and his family will celebrate the 25th anniversary of his transplant and new life.

*On February 8th, 2011 Terry took his last difficult breath in borrowed lungs but now is free of pain and living in his true home…Heaven.

Diane Markins

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Authored By Diane Markins