His beating heart

Don DeVorss, Oakmont High School varsity basketball team, 1976

As best I can tell, the last time Don DeVorss and I saw each other was probably at our high school graduation—Oakmont High School, June 1976, in Roseville, California. We’d gone through elementary school as well as high school together—living within a mile or so of each other, riding the same buses, sharing friends in common—but never in each other’s immediate orbits. I remember Don in high school as a tall, gifted athlete playing basketball and running track. I was the girl drummer in the marching band, directing the pep band at home basketball games, working on the school newspaper.

Don DeVorss, Oakmont High yearbook, 1976

After high school we veered into our grownup lives—Don becoming an architectural and landscape designer with his own business, marrying a lovely woman named Julie with whom he has three grown children, and living on the other side of Folsom Lake from where we grew up. Me writing my way into journalism, marrying Cliff, living and working in Sacramento, losing Cliff when he was 48 years old, then partnering with Dick.

What Don and Cliff and Dick have in common, though, are tricky hearts that needed some work. Cliff with his nifty clicking artificial aortic valve installed 17 years before he died. Dick collapsing in cardiac arrest in 2019 and being brought back to life thanks to an airport defibrillator, then having a triple bypass in Honolulu. And Don, whose heart began to fail because of a virus he acquired in Mexico, felling him with a heart attack and leaving him close to death—until, years later, someone else’s heart gave Don a second chance at life.

And, coincidentally, Dick and Don both had their chests opened by heart surgeons—one in Honolulu, one at Stanford—in January 2019.

Dick and Don and I met for lunch this week in Folsom so we could hear the amazing story of Don’s transplant, his bout early in the pandemic with Covid, and how he and Julie have started a wonderful nonprofit called Donor Gratitude. It’s all about, as it says on the website, “People saving people.”

Many transplant recipients never meet their donors (there are, in some cases, living donors) or their donor families, but, Don says, “I hope and pray that someday I do.” Don and Julie wanted to provide a way for organ recipients “to thank all of those who make the ‘Gift of Life’ possible,” according to the website.

The Donor Gratitude website is a place where people can share their stories about organ transplant and to help donor families heal from the loss of a loved one. Don’s heart came from a 32-year-old man (the same age as Don and Julie’s oldest son at the time) during a 13-hour surgery that put his donor’s healthy heart into Don’s then 62-year-old body at Stanford Medical Center.

It was a long journey back to health for Don, as well as for Julie, his primary caretaker, who works in Blue Shield’s Human Resources Department. He got Covid-19 two weeks into the shelter-in-place order in March 2020, but because of the immunosuppressants to prevent rejection of his donor heart, they helped control the cytokine storm that kills many Covid patients. “So it’s probably because of my transplant that I didn’t die of Covid,” Don told a writer for Blue Shield.

Don with his Donate Life medal.

So Dick and I—as well as our dear friend Cora Johnson—met Don for lunch in Folsom and talked hearts. Dick and Cora have been friend since their college years, and Cora was one of two dear friends (with her best friend Connie Raub) who flew to Hawaii to care for Dick after his heart surgery in January 2019.

To put it mildly, Cora Johnson’s got a lotta heart. For more than one reason.

Cora’s late husband, Bob Johnson, had a heart transplant in 2001, and both Johnsons became very active in organizations such as Donate Life and Mended Hearts. They donated literally thousands of hours and dollars to both groups, also getting to know Bob’s donor family and participating in fundraisers for years to raise scholarship money for the high school that Bob’s donor, Tim Baptista, attended in San Francisco.

Don and Cora had a lot to talk about. She drove down from her home in Minden, Nevada, for the day to meet Don and present him with a Donate Life medal in honor of his new heart. He gave us Donor Gratitude T-shirts and bracelets, as well as lots of smiles and hugs all around.

Dick Schmidt, Cora Johnson, Don DeVorss and Jan Haag—friends in hearts.

We’re eager to help Don and Julie as they create more awareness about organ transplantation. These two, who have built more than one business together, are now building what they call the Bridge of Life through Donor Gratitude to connect those who make organ donation and transplant possible.

There’s a place on Donor Gratitude’s home page where people can share their stories—anonymously, if they prefer—and the DeVorsses encourage anyone involved in organ donation to do so.

I’m only telling a small part of Don’s story. He tells it even better on the Donor Gratitude website. It’s one miracle after another, as Cora and Bob’s journey was, and as Dick’s and mine was. Angels come from everywhere to conspire on your behalf, I tell people, and Don’s story is full of those folks, too.

Don and Julie after Don’s heart transplant, Stanford Medical Center, 2019

This month I’ll be 64, and I often look around, thankful about how fortunate I’ve been in my life. I’ve walked through my life on the shoulders of so many good people, from my grandparents and parents who literally made me to dear family and friends. But all of us are also surrounded by folks who are seemingly strangers who show up at just the right time and place to help, influence and sometimes literally save our lives.

Don and Julie have a lot of those people, too, and Donor Gratitude is just one way they’re thanking them and providing a forum for others to do the same. If you know folks who have been organ donors or recipients, or families of either, you might suggest that they look at Donor Gratitude. The DeVorsses’ generous hearts are all over the site, and, indeed, are all about spreading thankfulness.

I’m so glad to be in the orbit again of this childhood friend, and to be able to hear Don’s story and become enthusiastic fans of the DeVorsses and Donor Gratitude. We ❤️ you!

Don and Julie DeVorss

About janishaag

Writer, writing teacher, editor
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3 Responses to His beating heart

  1. Dick Tracy says:

    Absolutely amazing stories. Isn’t it wonderful to hear GOOD NEWS like this?

  2. Cortez Jill (Harmon) says:

    Don, Be forever well.
    Jan, thank you for his story.
    Jill Harmon
    Eureka & Oakmont classmate

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