Second Chances at Life

John Fortney (heart recipient) and Transplant House of Cleveland’s on-staff transplant social worker, Annette Humberson, have been running the Second Chance Alcoholics Anonymous Program at the House for 3 years. The program is exclusively for those who are attempting to attain sobriety to qualify for transplant or those who have been transplanted and want continued support to remain sober. This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on John, his volunteer work, and the impact the House’s AA program has had for patients locally and across the United States.

In 2005 John Fortney came out of a coma at the Cleveland Clinic. He had been transported there from another hospital after being given the wrong type of blood and placed on total life support. On the way to the Clinic his heart had stopped multiple times. When John woke up, he had to learn to walk again and was told that at some point in the future he would need a heart transplant.

John’s heart problems began much earlier in life, following a devastating car accident at the age of 23. John was thrown from the vehicle and suffered a myocardio contusion.

“My sternum and ribs had gotten busted in,” John says. “I was told by a doctor back then that ‘you’re going to have heart problems someday.’”

But, as John says, he was young, and he didn’t think much about it at the time.

22 years later in 2005, John, now in his mid-40’s, went to the hospital feeling very sick. He was told he was having a heart attack and that they would need to perform a bypass surgery immediately. When John told the doctors about his past injuries, they were amazed he had survived at all. It was this bypass surgery that brought John to the Clinic and, ultimately, to his first meeting with Judy Stowe, a psychologist at the hospital.

“When I was in the coma, they talked to my family and she and others had determined that I had an alcohol problem. I told her that I didn’t – that I could quit drinking myself; and I did quit for probably about six months.”

After those six months John started to drink again and seven years after his bypass surgery, he started to feel sick for a second time. Returning to the Cleveland Clinic, John was told he would be placed in a drug-induced coma.

“They weren’t sure whether they’d be able to save my life or not.”

When John was brought out of the coma, his doctors told him that he was in end-stage heart failure and that he needed a heart transplant. John was placed on evaluation list, but in the process, he tested positive for alcohol and marijuana use. Because of this, John was told he would be given an LVAD as destination therapy – meaning that he would live the rest of his life completely dependent on the LVAD.

However, there was another option.

“They said I could get the LVAD as a bridge to transplant if I worked at a twelve-step program,” John says. “At that point I realized I was powerless over alcohol.”

So, John met with Judy again; and she remembered him. In 2005 he had told her he didn’t need structure or a twelve-step program, but this time their meeting was different.

“So here I was, eating crow you could say, because I realized at this point that I really needed help.”

On October 30, 2012 John decided to quit drinking. For the next three years John attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a couple of days a week led by Judy and specially designed for those who were facing their addiction and in need of transplant. He tested clean, got his weight down, and John was listed for transplant after three years of being in the program. While he waited, he kept going to the meetings.

On Thanksgiving Day of 2017, he received a heart.

John, who just recently marked his 11th anniversary of sobriety, is incredibly grateful for the gift of a second chance at life he’s received – two second chances: one made possible by his commitment to staying sober and the other by someone’s decision to become an organ donor and give him the gift of renewed life. In the years since his transplant, he’s officiated his stepdaughter’s wedding and been able to pursue the dreams that he and his wife of 38 years had talked about doing when they were first married.

And he’s enormously grateful to everyone at the Cleveland Clinic for the care he’s received – from members of the LVAD and transplant teams, to social workers and nurses, and the cleaning and maintenance staff John says they all made his second chance at life possible.

John is open about his experiences with addiction and the fact that in many ways he’s beaten the odds.

“I’m still here for a reason,” he says.

For John, that reason is to give back, to educate, to help others who are facing the struggle of addiction and confronted with the choice of destination therapy or getting sober to qualify for transplant just as he did in 2012. After his transplant, John began volunteering at the Clinic and meeting with people who are awaiting transplant or receiving an LVAD. He answers their questions and shows patients that, as he says, “there’s actually a light at the end of the tunnel” and that life post-transplant, while it requires the careful managing your health, is deeply fulfilling too.

Above all, he views his volunteer work as helping ensure that those who do receive a donor organ, as he did, cherish and care for the gift they’ve been given.

“My greatest fear for myself is to go out and ruin the gift that was given to me by someone who died.”

This is why when Judy Stowe retired, and John received a call about restarting her AA program at Transplant House, he leapt at the chance to continue the program that had changed his life and made transplant a possibility for him.  

“One of the elements of the AA program is you’ve got to give back. And this is one of my ways to give back,” He explains. “And to honor my donor I also have to give back, to do this, and to enjoy doing it.”

Click here to read Part 2 of John’s story in which he shares about the AA program at Transplant House and the many lives that the program has touched.

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