Second Chances at Transplant House

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. Click here to read the first part of John’s story.

When John received his heart transplant on Thanksgiving Day of 2017, psychologist Judy Stowe had been running an Alcoholics Anonymous group at the Cleveland Clinic specifically for transplant patients for many years. The program provided support to patients, like John, hoping to qualify for transplant or working to remain sober following transplant. It is clear when speaking with John that he credits Judy and the program for helping him to confront his addiction, make his 11 years of sobriety possible, and enable him to qualify for the heart transplant that saved his life.

As he says, it was Judy’s ability to speak to the challenges of addiction in a professional capacity and from a deeply personal place that made her the perfect person to run the program.  

“She went through AA at the Mayo Clinic back in the 1970s and had over 30 years of sobriety when I met her. She had the experience of being an alcoholic and she also knew the psychology behind it.”

Judy was also proof that a second chance at life is possible – that those who have struggled with alcohol and substance abuse could manage their addiction and stay sober post-transplant.

As John’s own post-transplant life began, Judy was preparing a life change of her own. Now in her 70s, she was ready to retire; but there was no one lined up to take over for her. Suddenly the future of a program that John credits with saving his life was in doubt.

It was during the first months of the pandemic that John received a phone call from Kay Kendall, a Senior Social Worker on the Heart Transplant Team at the Cleveland Clinic and longtime Transplant House Board Member.

“She told me, ‘We want to start up the program again and we’re going to have it at Transplant House. Judy Stowe recommended I call you and I’d like you to be part of it.’”

Not long after their talk, John co-led the first of the Second Chance Alcoholics Anonymous Program at Transplant House alongside the House’s transplant social worker, Annette Humberson. On that very first Zoom call were familiar faces: members of Judy’s group who had been transplanted or were waiting for transplant. Since this first meeting, the program has continued to grow. The weekly meetings average 12 attendees who join from the local community and from all over the United States. For John there’s something special about having people call in from places as far apart as Detroit, Indianapolis, Akron, Philadelphia, and California to support one another during two challenging experiences that can feel very lonely: transplant and addiction.

Some attendees are House guests, but most have never stayed at Transplant House. John emphasizes that the meetings are about more than providing support for managing addiction.

“You have the stresses of going through transplant and that’ll get to anybody; but then you throw in addictions on top of that and that’s a multiplication factor,” he says. “You’re dealing with sickness, getting listed for transplant, and they always say you’re going to be at your sickest before you get transplanted – so you’re at your whit’s and your body’s ends – and you’re also making sure you’re staying healthy in other ways.”  

John views the meetings as helping people in all facets of their lives, giving them a source of strength and stability, and addressing the many questions that come up during the evaluation and transplant process.

“You can share with people what you are going through in addition to your addiction,” he says, “We also share about the unknowns: What can I expect during this kind of test? What is dialysis like? What is a cardiac catheter? There’s a lot of knowledge exchange.”

In addition to helping individuals understand what to expect throughout the evaluation process, the meetings also provide an opportunity to share news that can be motivating. The group has had eight members listed and receive transplants and, as John explains, it’s important for others to see that somebody with an experience like their own goes through a program to address addiction, gets listed, and then gets the opportunity for a second chance at life.  

“For those in the meeting who hear that it gives them hope. You can’t put a price on that.”

As a local recipient who spends a lot of time volunteering at the Cleveland Clinic, John also appreciates what Transplant House offers to families traveling to Cleveland from afar.

“You meet people at the hospital from all around the world. I just live 25 minutes to the west. No big deal for me, but then you meet somebody from West Virginia or Arkansas or elsewhere and you realize how lucky we are to be this close to two transplant centers. To have a place you can call home, cook your own meals, your own little apartment – it helps them through the stressful time they’re going through.”

John does his part to help others through that stressful journey too – and he views it as something he has to do. He received a transplant and survived for a reason and that reason is, as he says, “to try to give back anywhere I can.”

Sometimes the effect on others is unexpected, like when John was recently approached by a nurse at the Clinic who had first met John when he was a patient with an LVAD in the process of completing a 12-step program.

“She told me patients like me made her want to go back and pursue her nurse practitioner’s license. I was floored by that.”

Above all, what John gives to others in the gift of a connection – a gift that is so vital for this small community facing their addiction within the small medical community of transplant. The Second Chances AA Program ensures that no one has to struggle with their addiction alone in the hope of being approved for transplant.

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