Bill Wohl was a hard-driving self-described type A executive until cardiac disease nearly killed him in 2000. A heart transplant at the University of Arizona medical center saved his life—and transformed it in ways he could never have imagined. Weeks after his operation, Wohl, now 58, heard a song on the radio by the British vocalist Sade. “I just started crying and rocking,” he recalls. Odd, since before the surgery, Wohl hadn’t heard of Sade and was not the type to mist up over a torch song. Later he contacted the family of organ donor Michael Brady, the 36-year-old Hollywood stuntman whose heart he had received, and made an intriguing discovery. Sade was one of Brady’s favorite singers. “It was,” says Wohl, “really, really freaky.”
And not entirely unheard of. Paul Oldam, a corporate executive in a Milwaukee law firm, received the heart of a 14-year-old boy who had been killed in a truck accident in 1993. On Oldam’s first post-surgery shopping trip, his wife, Peggy, was taken aback when he wandered into the candy aisle and started loading the basket with Snickers bars. “He never liked candy before that,” Peggy says other husband, now 70. Bill also became an avid outdoorsman, given to kayaking, cross-country skiing and cycling 25 miles at a stretch. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” says Peggy, 69, “if he wanted to try parachuting next year.”
Experts say a renewed zest for life is common among transplant recipients, whose surgeries can deliver them almost miraculously from the brink of death to robust health. “They go from being an invalid to a fully functional human being. It’s almost like becoming a new person,” says Dr. Jack Copeland, the Tucson surgeon whose team performed transplants for Wohl and some 700 other patients. But Sade-loving softies? Most doctors attribute the sometimes seismic personality changes after a transplant to radical health improvements, heavy doses of anesthesia and antirejection medications and psychological factors. Still, their patients often insist they have received far more than just a lifesaving hunk of muscle.
Although he has scant scientific research to back it up, University of Arizona psychologist Gary Schwartz advocates a theory to explain the curious phenomenon. Dubbed cellular memory, the theory holds that, since every cell in the body contains a complete set of genetic material, transplant patients inherit DNA from their donors that determines, in part, how a person thinks, behaves and even eats. “Hearts can have memory, as brains do,” says Schwartz. Most doctors, however, say that’s the stuff of the Sci-Fi Channel and note that Schwartz based his theory on a study of just 10 transplant patients. “There is no evidence of clinical findings to suggest that [cellular memory exists],” says Dr. Tracy Stevens, medical director of the cardiac transplant program at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
But try telling that to Jamie Sherman. A native of southern Arizona, an area peppered with Mexican restaurants, Sherman, who was born with a heart defect, didn’t develop a taste for the cuisine until she received a transplant in November 2001. Soon after, she had a strong and regular craving for cheese enchiladas, bean burritos and soft tacos. Sherman, 28, also says she emerged from the operation with a deep sense of anger. “I couldn’t understand where it was coming from,” she says.
Six months after the surgery, Sherman, like many transplant patients, was able to contact the family of her heart donor. His name was Scott Phillips, he had worked as a computer programmer and happened to love cheese enchiladas. But it was the circumstances of his death, says Sherman, that have helped her to understand her anger. “His mother told me, ‘Scott died in a fight,’ ” says Sherman. “It was important to understand these feelings when everything else in my life was going so well.” Meeting Sherman in person in January 2003 also brought comfort to the donor’s family, who felt, to some degree at least, as if they were once again in the presence of a loved one. “His mother said to me, ‘Even though you have different color eyes, I can still see him through you,’ ” says Sherman.
Despite often positive changes, some organ recipients also experience guilt or sadness because their renewed health has come from someone else’s death. That, too, can help reshape their lives. Dottie O’Connor, 38, of Bradford, Mass., suffered from cystic fibrosis all her life until her lung transplant a decade ago from a man she learned was a 37-year-old mountain climber. “You’re so happy and grateful, but you know there is another family out there who is sad on that day,” says O’Connor, who has made it a tradition to climb a different mountain on that date each year—alone, leaving her husband, John, 33, behind—to place a yellow rose on top in memory of her donor. “I almost feel like he’s climbing with me,” she says, “because when I take the steps, those are his lungs.” Though she never thought much about scaling heights before surgery, she says she now has a profound feeling of being at home whenever she drives or flies near mountains. “It’s very strange,” she says. “How can you explain that?”
Skeptics say what O’Connor and others have experienced is simply the overwhelming emotion that comes from receiving part of another human being’s body. Is there something more? Copeland, the University of Arizona transplant surgeon, says the very process of being an organ recipient is life-altering, often making recipients the focus of attention in ways they have never experienced. Although he has serious doubts that they may also inherit memories and tastes from their donors, Copeland says the topic merits further study. “I think it is highly unlikely that it is true,” he says of the cellular memory theory, “but I wouldn’t rule it out totally.”
Whatever the explanation, the recipients almost universally share one trait: gratitude. Brian Histand of Perkasie, Pa., was only 24 when a virus attacked his heart, leaving him fighting for his life at Philadelphia’s Temple University hospital. Two electronic devices did his heart’s work for seven months, until December 2003, when he received a heart transplant. All he knows about his new heart is that it came from a healthy, athletic man who lived in another state and had type O blood. Frankly, for Brian, that’s enough. “He has a much stronger craving for life,” says his wife, Stephanie, 27. The couple recently purchased a 17-ft. camper, and in May they plan to head west for a long-awaited vacation in Montana and California. In part, it’s a celebration of the gift of life Histand shares with thousands of other organ recipients. Says his mother, Mary: “He’s glad for the chance to be alive.”
Thomas Fields-Meyer. Vickie Bane in Denver and Giovanna Breu in Chicago