September 08, 1986 12:00 PM

Under the forward seat of the Learjet streaking over New Mexico sits a $15 Igloo Playmate picnic cooler. Inside is neither soda nor sandwiches, but a human heart bound for a waiting transplant patient at the University of Arizona medical center in Tucson. Accompanying the cargo are two surgeons, a scrub nurse and transplant coordinator Jan Copeland, 37—the so-called harvest team that had flown to Texas earlier this day to remove the organ from the brain-dead victim of a car crash. Copeland, mindful of the short four hours permitted between removal and implant, checks her watch and thinks ahead to Tucson and the waiting transplant surgeon, Dr. Jack Copeland, her husband.

Today’s transplant will be the medical center’s 84th since Jack, the hospital’s 44-year-old chief of cardiothoracic surgery, launched the transplant program in 1979. Jan now plays a part in almost half of those operations by locating donors and handling the logistics of organ delivery. The pair’s unusual partnership has not only been a boon to patients, but it has served their more personal affair of the heart as well.

For transplant surgeons and their mates, the daily “life-and-death situation puts a unique strain on relationships,” says Jack, survivor of a failed first marriage. “If you have a patient you’re afraid might die pulling you toward the hospital, there’s hardly anything that can override that and keep you at home. In fact there’s nothing. This brings us together in a nice way.”

Usually, anyway. Jan recalls last Thanksgiving, when her husband performed four transplants during a 10-day period, and the couple ended up sharing their holiday meal in the hospital cafeteria. “Barfy soysteak sandwiches,” says Jan, “but at least we were together.”

This day, which has sent Jan jetting across the Southwest, promises to be little different. Her husband had gone to the hospital at 6:30 a.m. to make his rounds; Jan had arrived at her office two hours later. At 12:30 the call came in informing her of a suitable donor in Texas, and, after hurriedly chartering a plane and a hospital-to-airport helicopter, she and the harvest team had begun their life-and-death race.

By evening Jack’s transplant team is assembled, and their patient—a 54-year-old autoworker—is prepped for surgery. With his wife’s plane still airborne, Copeland and a fellow surgeon set to work opening the chest and inserting tubing to be used later for carrying blood to and from the bypass machine. By 9:35 the patient is “ready to go,” but Jan and her team have not yet arrived. “I’d rather be in that position than running behind,” Jack would say later. “You were having conniptions,” Jan would respond.

At Stanford University in the ’60s, Copeland had had no dreams of becoming a surgeon. Hoping instead for a career in biochemistry, he found he lacked the A grade required for graduate work and reluctantly accepted a job doing research on canine heart transplants. (“It was either that or a job testing dog urine,” he now jokes.) By the time he graduated from medical school, he was hooked to the pioneering work in transplants. (“It consumed me day and night.”) He had also married a nursing student and produced two children, Patrick, now 18, and Jennifer, 15.

In 1977, after practicing general and heart surgery for four years at the Stanford medical center, he was offered his present post in Tucson and readily accepted. “The pay wasn’t great,” he says, “but the opportunity was excellent. I never looked at another job.”

It was at the University of Arizona medical center in 1980 that he met Jan Sailer, then a pediatric nurse and recent divorcée. With Jack’s marriage already crumbling, “one thing led to another,” says Jan. The pair eventually moved in together and were married in October 1983. They now share a three-bedroom mission-style stucco home two miles from the hospital. The quarters are modest, partly because alimony and child support claim 40 percent of Jack’s salary. The amount seems “reasonable,” he says, and as for the unpretentious housing, no matter: “We spend most of our time at the hospital.”

At 9:48 a surgeon bursts into the operating room carrying the Igloo, and Jack turns on the bypass machine so he can begin removing his patient’s diseased heart. While he’s working, Jan enters the O.R. in a sterile hospital gown to drop off the information she has gathered on the donor. She then heads for the blood lab with samples for tissue typing and finally to the sixth-floor waiting room, where she tries to assure the patient’s worried wife that everything is going well.

It is 12:30 a.m., 16 hours after her workday began, before Jan falls into bed. Jack is not so lucky. By now the transplant is almost completed, but an elderly woman has just been brought into the emergency room with a ruptured aorta. At 2 a.m. he returns to surgery and tries in vain to help save the hemorrhaging victim. His day stretches to 22 hours before he returns home at 4:30 a.m.

Such schedules restrict the Cope-lands’ time together, which consists mostly of Saturday grocery shopping, dinners and vacations. They now also make time for son Patrick, who has moved in while attending the University of Arizona (leaving his younger sister with their mother in Tallahassee, Fla.). Left guarding the home front are a basset hound named Fred and a cat named Scooter. Another pet, a rabbit with a transplanted heart, was killed by a neighborhood dog last November. For Jack, the son of a chemical engineer, and Jan, the daughter of a widowed secretary, the strain of their special career has become the cement in their relationship.

“People always ask me, ‘Don’t you find it difficult working with your husband?’ ” notes Jan. “I find that it’s easy.” Says Jack: “Sometimes in the middle of the night when I get a donor call, I’ve lost all my enthusiasm and would just as soon roll over and get a good night’s sleep. Many times I’ve felt if it weren’t for Jan, I don’t think I could continue doing what I’m doing.”

On Saturday, after the transplant, Jack sleeps through his 7:30 a.m. tennis game but arrives at the hospital an hour later to check on his patient. In the afternoon he grabs a 90-minute nap back at his house, then returns to take the now mending autoworker off his ventilator and remove his endotracheal tube. It is 6 p.m. by now, and while he is writing instructions for the night nursing staff, Copeland gets a call from the emergency room. “We’ve got a stab wound to the heart; we’re taking him to the O.R. now,” he is told. Says the surgeon: “I’ll meet you there….”

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