By Drew Page
|John Rankl and his cousin Ricia McSparren|
PORTLAND (09/19/2012) -- Just 6 months after heart transplant surgery, John Rankl learned of a forthcoming sermon at the First Congregational Church UCC of Portland entitled "Prayer - The World's Greatest Wireless Connection." It was Laity Sunday, and church member Mitch Kogut was preaching the sermon. During the usual prayers and concerns, John stood and offered his joy at being a transplant survivor. While preaching his sermon, Kogut turned to John and said he needed to speak directly to him.
"He said, 'I'm now 17 years post-transplant, and you're here for a reason'," recalls John. "What's the likelihood that you're going to go to church and there just happens to be a layperson giving the sermon, and he just happens to be [a transplant recipient]. It was truly a spiritual moment."
John Rankl is a Gulf War veteran, a brother, a son, and a faithful church member. He has faced challenge after challenge with a determination to live, the love of a family, and faith.
Four years ago, John lived in Naples, Florida, where he was an active member of the Naples United Church of Christ. John led an active lifestyle, swimming and cycling every day. That changed when a virus damaged his heart. John did not have many alternatives. As an HIV positive patient, heart transplant was not an option.
Directed to seek care up north, John moved to Connecticut in 2009. Though initially referred to Hartford Hospital, his HIV status still excluded him from receiving help there. Instead, John went to New York-Presbyterian Hospital where he was placed on the donor list and was able to receive a heart pump.
John's life got better, for a little while. Then, the pump failed. The power cable developed a short and the primary pump shut off. John was living on the unit's backup pump, but he knew he did not have much time. With the help his brother-in-law, John repaired the cable with plastic tubing and duct tape.
John spent 2 years in Connecticut waiting for a new heart. During that time, he relied on the support of his three sisters and his father who jumped each time the phone rang, hoping it was from the hospital. In May of 2011, the call came. A donor heart was available.
With his family waiting in the hospital, John went into the operating room while doctors began extracting the donor heart. Then, something went wrong. The heart tore and was no longer functional.
"I woke up from anesthesia to find that I still had the pump," said John.
Though disappointed, John believes someone was watching over him that day. The torn organ suggested the donor heart was not in perfect health. In addition, while John was waiting for the transplant, cardiologist Dr. Detlef Wencker had been trying to change the protocol for HIV transplants at Hartford Hosptial. The day before the attempted transplant, Dr. Wencker had called John to tell him that he was officially listed on Hartford's list. On June 4, one month after the failed attempt, John received a new heart at Hartford Hospital.
John had a healthy heart and his is prognosis was promising. Still, John faced more obstacles. One was learning to live with another person's heart.
"Even though they tell you to rationalize in your mind that it's not your fault, that you're not the one who killed [the donor]…, you still have these feelings of guilt," said John.
Two incidents helped John heal spiritually after the transplant. One was Mitch Kogut's sermon, and the second event took place in the weeks following a July airing of ABC's NY Med, a series featuring staff at New York Presbyterian Hospital. After his surgery, John had sent a letter of thanks to the donor's family. The family did not read the letter.
But during the airing of the NY Med episode depicting John's fight to live, one clip showed a physician heading down I-91 in an ambulance with the donor heart. Based on time and location, a member of the donor's family who was watching the show concluded that the heart belonged to their late relative and alerted others. Inspired by John's story, the family reached out, and their conversations have led to healing on both sides. Where there was guilt and grief, there is now gratitude and closure.
John is aware of the miraculous nature of his story, but he believes it all has happened for a purpose, God's purpose. Since Mitch Kogut's sermon last winter, John has joined Portland's choir, the music committee, and the Christian Education committee. Though other challenges will come, John has shown that his will and faith will overcome them. As John's father told NY Med, "Every obstacle [John] met, he beat."
The NY Med featuring John is online at: http://abc.go.com/watch/ny-med/SH55214626
Drew Page is Media Assistant for the Connecticut Conference UCC.