Saturday, February 7, 2009

Asking a transplant survivor what he thinks of Stephen Lovely's new transplant novel, "Irreplaceable"

Gregory Calvert had a major heart attack that should have killed him back 1996. That was followed by an unsuccessful emergency balloon procedure.

An emergency quadruple bypass three months later gave him a 50-50 chance of survival.

Calvert said he lived, but the surgery didn’t help. And when he tried to go back to work, he was told he was “no longer needed.”

That’s when Calvert was referred to University of Iowa transplant service. About nine months later, he had to go into the UI Cardiovascular Intensive Care, where he lived for four months hoping to get a heart. After nearly dying a few times, he received a new heart in June 1997, only to have his pulmonary artery burst as soon as it was put in.

Thirty-two units of blood and five days later, he woke up with a new heart and a bovine patch on his pulmonary artery.

But when he went home a couple a few weeks later, he found his life wasn’t made any easier with a new heart:
* His 20-year marriage ended 18 months later after his wife also had a near death experience with Strep pneumonia.
* A year later his kidneys failed, and he had to start dialysis for next 3½ years — until he finally received a kidney transplant in 2004.
* And he had renal carcinoma in his native kidney in 2007.

Calvert said he’s been good ever since — other than skin cancers and the other “normal post transplant things.”

I became interested in Calvert’s story because he — like the protagonist, Janet Corcoran, in Iowa Writer Workshop graduate Stephen Lovely’s new heart transplant novel, “Irreplaceable” — ignored all medical advice and found out the name of his donor.

Because Lovely is scheduled for a Prairie Lights reading at 7 p.m., Thursday, I thought Calvert would be a good critic for a debut novel that:
* Has sparked much lively discussion on transplant forums like and
* About which a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly states — and I agree with — “Lovely does a great job of staying out of sappy melodrama as the gravity of Isabel’s death pulls the cast together in memorable fashion. The delicate handling of loaded material, attention to detail, and depth of character make this a standout.”

Calvert had a completely different reaction to the novel than I do, though.

Q: How true to life does this novel feel to you?
A: The short answer is, ‘Not very.’ … Parts of this book were very hard for me to read. I had to stop a few times. The needlessly gruesome detail of the procurement process was gratuitous. More “Sweeney Todd” than the truth of the reverence of this process, and the people involved. … And the idea that those waiting for a heart would watch the weather report hoping for a storm was way beyond the pale.

I had to wonder why — with all the people at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop who helped with this book — nobody asked Lovely to consider more than just process and making the story work. Did it not occur to anyone that the thought of having your loved one disassembled like a slab of beef at the butcher shop and then being hounded by a killer and a deranged recipient wouldn’t affect the donor process?

Q: How would your transplant experience have been different if you have read able to read this novel ahead of time?
A: The real process involves screening and education, which deals with the issues you will have post transplant. Great care is taken to make sure that you know that you will have a new reality. You’re life will not be as it was before. I don’t think there was anything in this book that would add to that.

Q: Which characters do you relate the most to and why?
A: Well, Janet, obviously. But I’ve never met nor even heard of a recipient so oblivious to or disrespectful of the process. Wouldn’t happen in a million years. The privacy and wishes of the donor families are sacrosanct. Period.

Q: What are some of the experiences with a transplant that someone who hasn’t gone through the procedure might have a hard time understanding?
A: The overwhelming theme of the transplant experience is that someone, during a time of terrible tragedy in their own lives, chooses to do something to help someone else. It is a message of love and compassion. A testament to the best of human nature. Being on the receiving end changes you forever.

Q: What other books have been helpful for you in dealing with the aftereffects of the transplant?
A: “The Heart’s Code: Tapping the Wisdom and Power of Our Heart Energy,” by Paul Pearsall. It’s a book by a counselor who has worked with transplant recipients.

And “Sick Girl,” by Amy Silverstein. It’s a realistic description of life post transplant.

I have to wonder about Lovely. … He can write, but there has to be more somehow.

Each year we have a transplant picnic. Last year a donor family who had met and become friends with their recipient attended. I wish Lovely could have been there. The donor family was embraced with heartfelt emotion from a hundred recipients as though they had saved everybody’s lives. It was the most moving experience of my life.

The gift of life is a sacred thing and deserves to be treated with dignity.

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