By Bruce Fitzpatrick
Until that instant, in the spring of 1962, the first week of the first New York Mets spring training had gone well. I drew considerable attention because I was only 18 and ten to 15 years younger than most of the players. The moment occurred when infielders were practicing rundowns. As a shortstop back at New South High School in Newton, Mass., I had been taught to use the old obey-when-under-duress tactic of yelling, “Stop!” to the runner. Our iconic 72-year-old manager, Casey Stengel, went ballistic when he watched my rendition. He called me over and dressed me down for pulling such a stunt. I explained that’s the way I was taught.
I survived the incident because my high school coach, Howard Ferguson, had given me confidence. Yes, Stengel had scared the daylights out of me, but “Fergie” taught his players to believe in themselves.
A second major “rundown” occurred 53 years later. Two heart attacks put me in New York’s Westchester Medical Center. I was informed my heart was damaged beyond repair and my only option was a heart transplant. Once again, I was stunned.
I was placed on a waiting list that eventually became a 148-day nightmare — constant fear, lots of anxiety, and endless waiting. Despite the unknown, I was able to maintain my composure because Coach Ferguson’s influence surfaced once again. I turned my hospital room into an office, complete with a desk and bookcase. With an iPhone and iPad, I got busy doing whatever it took to make each day a positive experience. Then on day 149 of waiting, a heart suddenly became available from a donor.
I got to the big leagues as a teenager because of Coach Ferguson. His desire to win was a compulsion. He often quoted Vince Lombardi’s mantra that “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” In baseball, as in waiting for a new heart, “winning” was essential. Without a new heart I would die.
My heart transplant was performed on February 10, 2016 at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla. The hospital stay was a grim experience, despite the advanced medical facilities and the incredible team of nurses and doctors. I was literally confined to the fifth floor of the hospital for months. Even though I had frequent visitors, severe feelings of isolation began to set in. The crux of the problem was that I had no idea when the wait would end. Eventually, I made it because of determination.
An organ donor can help many critically ill people — heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, spleen, intestines, and eyes are all needed.
Last year, 8,000 people died in the U.S. because they didn’t receive an organ in time. Currently, there are 117,000 people, 9,500 of them in New York State, on the national organ donor waiting list. An important statistic: while 26% of Westchester County drivers are registered donors, 74% are not. It’s worth noting that 89% of Minnesota drivers are registered donors, and only 11% are not. There is clearly room for improvement in Westchester County. It might help if more people perceived this as doing something monumental, something humanitarian, and something good. The reward is putting a fellow human back in commission.
I am now moving along the road called recovery. The transplant was 16 months ago. I frequently reflect on the entirety of what’s happened as I enjoy the simple things in life like a stroll on the beach or a matinee movie. The heart came from a 30-year-old male whose name was not given to me. I am grateful every day for his unknowing generosity. A life lost. A life gained.
A philosophical doctor once shared an old Jewish saying, “If you save one life, you save the world.” So the game we all have to play is “let’s sign up!”
You can do just that at organdonor.gov.
Bruce Fitzpatrick, at left, with Casey Stengel in 1962
In recovery after a heart transplant