Richard Jerome
March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

At 18, Darren Minors lived exuberantly on the island of Bermuda. Sharp and engaging, he practiced kung fu and formed a contemporary R&B singing group called Goodfellows. “His teachers loved him,” says his father, Robert Minors, 50, a taxi driver. “He was a terror though. He once jumped out the window just to make people laugh.” But with maturity he had become industrious, working at a grocery store while studying computer science at Bermuda College. “Darren was really settling in,” says his mother, Carolann Tacklyn, 44, a financial administrator long divorced from Minors. “You could see the change in him.”

That vibrant promise came to a sudden end last Aug. 13. After attending a baby’s christening party that night, Darren was riding home on his new motorbike with a friend when two girls called out to them. The young men looked back (police have not determined who was driving), then lost control of the bike on a tight curve. His friend suffered no injuries, but Darren was thrown head first into a cement wall. For four days he lay suspended between life and death in King Edward VII Memorial Hospital. Then, on the morning of Aug. 17, Darren went into cardiac arrest. When a CT scan showed that his brain had ceased to function, an anesthesiologist suggested his parents consider donating their son’s organs.

“It was like a dream, a gray dream,” recalls Tacklyn, who had been on a cruise in Spain and flew in to be by her son’s bedside. “I said if it comes to that, I would want whatever could be done to be done.” Minors agreed. “I wanted there to be something more with his life; I could hold on to him a little longer,” he says. “It’s what he would have wanted too.”

Surely Darren would have been pleased, for in death he gave five people the gift of life. On Aug. 18 surgeons at the New England Medical Center in Boston gave Darren’s liver to Greg Satterlee, 35, of Scotia, N.Y. Meanwhile at nearby Brigham and Women’s Hospital, four surgical teams performed an extraordinary quadruple transplant: John Perry, 56, of Taunton, Mass., received Darren’s heart; Harriet Courtemanche, 50, of Charlestown, N.H., and Lucinda Bethke, 46, of Hinsdale, N.H., were each given a lung; and Darren’s cousin Menelik Isaac, then 24, brought in from Bermuda, gained a new kidney. “For four matches to line up at one hospital is very, very rare,” says Dr. David Sugarbaker, who led the teams at Brigham and Women’s, site of the world’s first organ transplant, a kidney, in 1954. “It was a grand slam.”

About 21,000 organ transplants are done each year in the U.S. But at any given time some 75,000 people are on waiting lists, and last year more than 6,000 of them died. Isaac had been on Brigham and Women’s list for a year when he went to bed on Aug. 17. “My sister Na’ilah comes busting into my room, slams her hand on the dresser and says my cousin had passed and he was going to give me a kidney,” recalls Isaac, a van driver for his family’s transportation business. “I am thinking, That’s my little cousin you’re talking about. How can they be thinking about me?’ ”

At 6’2″ and 230 lbs., he had once seemed unassailably robust. But in February 1999 Isaac began suffering flu-like symptoms. Tests revealed kidney failure, and before long his joints had stiffened to the point that he could scarcely walk. “Just getting to the bathroom to brush my teeth was really difficult,” he says.

Isaac was on thrice-weekly dialysis when he was wheeled into Darren’s hospital room for a final farewell. When he awoke the morning after the transplant, 800 miles away, Isaac says, “I looked out and there was a sunrise. It was definitely a new day. As the days went by, I felt certain muscles come back and I’m like, ‘Whooo!’ ” By September, taking in a movie with his mother, Nasirah, 53, he could race up the stairs. “I had to walk fast to keep up with him,” she says. Still, Isaac’s triumph is bittersweet. “When I went into the operation, I’m thinking about how I’m about to have my little cousin’s kidney put in me,” says Isaac. “I’m still a little lost now. I’m lost for words.”

Fear and pain, then relief

Harriet Courtemanche wept when she first saw her husband, Ronald, after her lung transplant. “All I remember saying is, ‘I made it,’ ” she recalls. “I’m a fighter, that’s why. It takes a lot to keep me down.”

Thrice married, with a grown son, Courtemanche, 50, of Charlestown, N.H., had been virtually disabled by pulmonary fibrosis, the formation of scar tissue in the lungs. Her breathing problems began in 1995 when she worked at a company staining prefab kitchen cabinets. “I would get a swollen throat or my temperature would be 105°,” she says. Repeated absences cost Courtemanche her job, after which she worked as a home health aide for the elderly. “That lasted until I just couldn’t lift the people anymore,” she says. Ultimately, a doctor at Dartmouth Hitchcock hospital in Lebanon, N.H., told her to consider a lung transplant.

“I freaked,” says Courtemanche, who spent 10 months on Brigham and Women’s waiting list, eventually going on oxygen 24 hours a day because she was too weak to do even the lightest chores. “I was miserable, I was ugly, I cried all the time. I knew I wasn’t going to make it much longer.”

The call came around midnight on Aug. 17. Courtemanche and Ron, 37, who paints truck frames for a living, drove to Boston in three hours. The operation was not without complications. She woke up afterward realizing she’d suffered a mild stroke; then, a week after going home, she experienced chest pain, a sign of organ rejection, which she combats with 30 pills a day. And she became addicted to the painkiller Percocet. “I took myself off it a couple of months ago,” she says. “I’d get all the symptoms of withdrawal. I couldn’t sleep. I’d shake all the time. I couldn’t eat.”

Problems aside, Courtemanche treasures the chance that Darren Minors gave her and looks forward to revisiting the pleasures illness denied her. “I want to go camping again,” she says. “I want to do my garden. I’d like to travel like we did—we’d just get in the car and go.”

Stricken in his prime

The news that he would die without an almost immediate liver transplant came as a shock to Greg Satterlee. At 35 the Scotia, N.Y., corrections officer appeared to be a walking advertisement for physical fitness. An ex-Navy machinist’s mate, he worked out religiously, lifted weights, played in a softball league and in good weather hit the golf course several times a week. But last July 18 he reported for work at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, N.Y., sat down for breakfast and couldn’t swallow. “When I brushed my teeth and looked in the mirror,” says Satterlee, who is single, “I noticed my eyes were yellow.”

He grew progressively weaker over the next few weeks, becoming bloated from fluid retention. “He blew up like a balloon,” says his mother, Katherine, 62. “He said he looked like the Nutty Professor.” On Aug. 12, the day before Darren Minors’s fatal accident, Satterlee’s doctor arranged for him to be taken to New England Medical Center for testing. The diagnosis: complete liver failure, though the cause was unclear. “Within two weeks he would have been dead,” says transplant surgeon Dr. Richard Freeman. Satterlee was immediately placed on the waiting list, and for him the suspense lasted less than a week. When the moment arrived, he met it unflinchingly. “I didn’t think about not making it,” he says.

Currently using sick leave donated by coworkers, Satterlee hopes to be back on the job by April. He cleared the hurdle of survivor’s guilt with help from a priest. “He explained that somebody wasn’t dying for me,” Satterlee says. “It would be their time to go, and the benefit of that was for me to keep living.”

Breathing easier

Lucinda Bethke’s doctor warned that her chronic emphysema would never improve without a lung transplant. But despite her near constant suffering, it took her a full year to find the courage to add her name to a waiting list for donor recipients. “It was like my heart just fell,” she says of admitting to herself that her prospects were so bleak. But finally the struggle to breathe became too much to bear. “I couldn’t walk from here to the window,” she says.

For Bethke, 46, a former nurse’s aide, it was yet another crisis in a life buffeted by disappointment and trauma. When she was 6, her father, a housepainter, was electrocuted on the job. Her first marriage, at 16, produced a son but ended in divorce after five years. In 1986 her 52-year-old second husband collapsed and died of heart failure at their wedding reception. Then, in 1994, two years after she married chef Kenneth Bethke, he was diagnosed with lung cancer; he died at 58 in 1996.

After adding her name to the transplant list at Brigham and Women’s, doctors told Bethke that to prepare for the operation, she’d have to pare down from 229 lbs. to 129, the extra weight being a health risk. It took a year, and she had just reached her goal when she was awakened by a midnight phone call on Aug. 17. A lung—Darren Minors’s—was available. “You want to talk about being scared,” says Bethke. “I was cold all over.”

Bethke, who lives in Hinsdale, N.H., with her cat Sadie, has resumed many normal activities. Grateful to her donor’s family, she bought a card with Thank You embossed in gold on a heart. She was about to write a note and send it when she received a letter from Darren Minors’s mother offering prayers. She still carries that letter in her pocketbook, but so far Bethke hasn’t found the right words to reply. “I’m having a hard time,” she says. “Once I figure out what I should say, I will send the card.”

Picking up the beat

With the stars glittering off the waters of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay last August, the band aboard the cruise ship Bay Queen struck up “Crazy” by Patsy Cline. But John Perry couldn’t dance with his wife, Maureen. Four heart attacks had taken their toll. “I can’t do it,” said the 56-year-old father of five. “I won’t be able to dance with you until I get my new heart.”

As a young man he had been “healthy as a horse,” says Perry, who spent 25 years as a machinist and ran his own welding shop on the side. But at 34, after chopping a cord of wood, Perry suffered his first heart attack. After his third attack, in 1989, he underwent bypass surgery. Then, three years ago on the beach at Provincetown, Mass., Perry’s motor home got stuck in sand. “Dopey me started shoveling,” he says. The result was attack No. 4, after which he learned he would need a transplant. Three times he was called to Brigham and Women’s as a backup recipient. Then last August his turn finally came. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a one-way street—you’re either going north or south,’ ” Perry says. “You do wonder if this is going to be the last time you’ll see him,” says Maureen, 53. “It was pretty tough leaving him at that door.”

When Perry was released a month later, his friends hired a white stretch limo to take him and Maureen home. Now he savors each moment—like the one at Maureen’s 35th high school reunion last November. To Anne Murray’s “May I Have This Dance for the Rest of My Life?” Perry waltzed his wife around the floor at the Sea Crest Oceanfront Resort in Falmouth, Mass. “I’ll make the best use of it and cherish it,” he says of his new heart. “I never expected to have this quality of life. I’m still astounded.”

Richard Jerome

Anne Driscoll in Bermuda and Boston

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