Wing and a Prayer

After midnight in hospital room 5070, a turkey hunter laid waiting.. Inside, doctors relay the news that they have found a new heart for him. That hunter, Richard “Rich” Mitchell Jr., is my best friend.

At 12:48 a.m. on April 25, 2020, Rich called my phone. I didn’t hear it, I was asleep.

At 12:50 a.m. he sent this text: “Just got the call, the surgery will take place in the morning if the Lord say[s] so.”

Why did my friend need a new heart?

The simple answer: he was dying. Two years ago, doctors ultimately concluded he had Transthyretin Amyloidosis, a very rare abnormality of proteins. For some, it’s associated with certain cancers. In this case, protein fluid buildup constricts the heart and renders death in short order — ranging from months, and for the lucky, up to five years.

What once was a natural involuntary occurrence, breathing becomes nearly impossible. It was a vicious cycle — when fluids built up, doctors pumped stuff into his body to keep the fluids out. This tug of war restricted his heart’s capacity to do its job efficiently.

A New Heart

A year before this, at 9:26 a.m. on Nov. 26, 2019, my phone rang while I was getting ready to make a surprise visit to see my friend. Was this fate? Rich was on the other end. After exchanging greetings, he said he was done.

Physically the strain of living with this illness had rendered his body sick and tired. Mentally, the stress was heavy, and, like Fannie Lou Hamer, he was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Rich had given up on life and embraced what comes next.

I knew in that moment my best friend had mentally died. My mind went dark, it had nothing to give. I left immediately for the hospital to go see him. He needed me. I needed to be there.

Sleep for him brought pain. He wouldn’t eat; hospital food requires a cardboard fetish. Worse, anything beyond breathing was never more than a wish. His doctor placed him into an ongoing medical study for a newly developed drug designed to combat this body-wrecking condition.

Ultimately, doctors told him what his body already knew; the medicine wasn’t helping. There remained only one other option, a heart transplant. Yet, this option is complicated on many levels; most of all, in the U.S., there are only 2,000 heart transplants a year. Besides, how does a mind comprehend death giving way to life?

A Left Wing

On April 3 last year, Rich was dropped off at the university hospital. Due to COVID-19 restrictions in place, no visitors were allowed. In most cases, when you’re waiting for a transplant, you live in the hospital to be ready if a matching organ becomes available.

Days come and go. Tick-tock, time goes slower, and all he could do was sit and wait. Twice, hearts became available but they were not a good match. News on those two deaths further troubled his mind. His wait finally ended before the clock struck midnight on April 25. Someone died with a heart that was a good match for Rich.

At 6:45 a.m., Rich called again; I missed that call too. When we finally talked, he told me the surgery wouldn’t be until 3:30 p.m.

Tick-tock, it was 2:30 p.m., an hour before the heart transplant, and my mind wandered. Restless, I called my friend. I asked what was going through his mind. He shared what Paul wrote in Philippians: “For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”

Rich had overcome the past. He didn’t seem interested in discussing the present. He did, however, make a request for the future. “I need you to get me a left turkey wing.”

"I need you to get me a left turkey wing.”

Wait. What?

Rich had been a traditional archer for years, and I knew those turkey feathers would be used to make arrow fletchings for a right-handed shooter. Why would he bring that up now? I had more urgent topics (his imminent surgery) and pressing feelings (the risks). Furthermore, I was more concerned about a person dying to give my friend an opportunity to live, perhaps to hunt again. His feather request missed the mark, but he was thinking about life beyond the surgery.

A Turkey

Rich hunts vicariously with me, virtual hunting if you will, so he knew well that I was traversing an uneventful turkey hunting season. He also knew for me to give him a left turkey wing, a turkey would have to die. Interesting, right?

A few mornings later, when I woke, I knew I would harvest a turkey that day. That morning’s hunt, however, ended as the 30 others had. My friend’s request, my stress. Tick-tock, time was winding down on the season.

On the phone with a friend before I went back to the woods, I told him I had to go; I’m supposed to kill a turkey today. And I did.

After finding the right backdrop, I used my phone’s self-timer to capture the turkey’s left wing. I texted a picture of the turkey, his wing and me to Rich and his new heart. My friend replied, “Thanks, I am well. He is a really nice bird. When I am back to where I can, I will be out there trying to get my own.”

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